AURORA THE MIDNIGHT STAR
(Sequel to The Twilight of the Gods)
By Phantom Bard (J. Nakamura)
2 / 4 / 2001
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters and concepts from the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, including Xena, Gabrielle, and the portrayal Ares, are the creations and property of MCA / Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No malice is intended to these characters or concepts. I would like to express my thanks to their creators for sharing them with us. Feedback can be sent to me at the address above.
This story contains violence at a level equivalent to that present in the TV series, (plus several worlds destroyed, and some harsh language), emotional trauma, and the depiction of relationships including those derived from the "subtext" present in the TV series. There are no graphic sexual descriptions, however, if any of these topics make you feel uncomfortable, please read something else.
This story is a sequel to my earlier stories, "The Twilight of the Gods", and "Xena: Goddess of War"' and includes references to events in them, as well as episodes through the first half of the 6th season. I hope you enjoy this story.
Now it's been ten thousand years,
Man has cried a billion tears.
For what he never knew,
Now man's reign is through.
But through eternal night,
The twinkling of starlight.
So very far away,
Maybe it's only yesterday. *`
*` "In the year 2525", © Zager and Evans
For over four thousand years, after I won and lost my eternal love, I watched her mortal race grow in power, and spread across the heavens. From world to world the Kingdom grew, and, as had been foretold, human civilization abandoned their ancient home, and became a race of the galaxy. Through its 1,837 colonial planets, the Cardinal world of Earth had truly become a world without end. Yet along the way, though they increased in knowledge, their spirit dimmed. The strength of their youth, and the will to challenge and conquer the unknown, died in their hearts. For nearly two thousand years after the great expansion ended, there had been no pressure to take new worlds, and mold them into new homes. The homes they had won in the Great Expansion had become the center of their universe, and the rest of the galaxy became a hinterland, unworthy of consideration. Lacking the challenges that had driven them to exceed their past, they turned from combat to complacency. On the 1,837 worlds, mankind stagnated in comfort. They had conquered the struggle with their environment, and they had conquered the struggle with their bodies. There were no life threatening diseases anymore, and aging could be held at bay. With life spans of close to five hundred years, birth rates dropped. By minimizing the threat of death, there was little incentive for insuring a lineage through their offspring. Without the pressure of population growth, there was no reason to expand.
I had rejoiced as I watched the succession of lives, in which the souls of Xena and Gabrielle were reborn. To me, Ares the God of War, the permutations of their lives were the most wonderful thing about the long tale of mankind. Always, the soul of Xena of Amphipolis held the spirit of battle, channeled into a willingness to attack any problem she faced. At some point, in each of her lives, she encountered and cherished the incarnation of Gabrielle of Poteidia. The soul of the once and future bard brought to their unions a sensitivity and righteousness, and a love of the written word. Somehow she always managed to chronicle their exploits. In my citadel, on the planet of Terminus Prime, I have collected thousands of her histories and fictions.
Terminus Prime was my planet. Oh yes, it was an early colonial planet, and a part of the Kingdom, but more than that, it was the home of the Colonial Military Academy. For
over four thousand years Terminus Prime was the training ground of what Xena's Defense Forces became. At its zenith there were twelve million warriors in the population, and a fleet of over a twenty thousand warships. From my planet, they patrolled the galaxy, suppressing insurrections and alien incursions throughout the known worlds. They were peerless. The spirit of battle burned bright in their hearts in the days of their expansion. I had never had more loyal worshippers. I watched sixty-one generations of Xenas and Gabrielles as they strove for excellence. But finally the complacency I spoke of settled on mankind. There was no further expansion. There were no insurrections among the sheep, and their alien adversaries were destroyed or absorbed. There was no need for the Defense Forces. There was no need for a God of War. The roster of warriors diminished, and the warships were mothballed, dry docked in hanger stations within Terminus Prime. The population dropped to only four thousand by 6,920 A.D., and by the turn of the century they were little more than farmers. It had been almost three hundred years since a new world was added to the Kingdom.
The last time I saw Xena and Gabrielle was when Annika Sherril was born in 6,494 A.D. on the planet of Carillon Secundus, and Mariel Havarr was born in 6,497 A.D. on Juno. I watched over them, marveling at how Annika had the tall powerful build, raven hair, and ultramarine eyes of her unknown ancestor, while Mariel was a dead ringer for the battling bard. Though there was never any lineage in blood, yet through history their spirits were born into bodies so like the bronze-age Greek women I had first known, that there was no mistaking them they were always photographically identical. By 6,560 A.D. Annika was regarded as an anachronism she had chosen a career in the defense forces. She had the distinction of being the last captain of a warship. They were no longer needed. The last war had been a minor skirmish almost a hundred years before her birth. In 6,895 A.D. the last warship was ordered to base, and decommissioned. Annika was pensioned at the age of 401, and died of a broken heart only six years later. For the first time, one of Gabrielle's incarnations outlived her. Mariel died in 6,922 A.D., still mourning Annika, on an almost empty world.
In 6,901 A.D. I broke my long-standing rule for the first time, and approached a living reincarnation of my beloved warrior princess. I somehow knew she would be the last. As she lay dying, I came to her as the God of War, appearing as I had in millennia past, dressed in black, and girt with my ancient sword, the chakram hanging from my belt, and her own sword in my hands. With the clarity of the dying she knew me she knew who and what I was.
"Greetings Annika," I said as I appeared with flames and lightning, "I salute you, for you have kept alive the Spirit of Battle, in which your race was born, and grew. I salute you, my long lost and often found mortal beloved."
"I I know you," she said, "and lately I have dreamed about you. I have envisioned a past in which mankind lived to struggle and conquer. And in my dreams there appeared a God of War, and he was he was you."
Across the bed from me Mariel looked on, in wonder, but not in fear.
"I am the God of War. For almost five thousand years I have watched both your souls being reborn time after time, and through those lifetimes you have found each other, and fought for the greater good. It was the fulfillment of a promise made so long ago that mankind has forgotten the world in which it was made. Mankind once looked forever forward to the next challenge, yet no more."
"I know," she said, "the people have become content in the present. They have given up the edge that made them strive, and they have lost the Spirit of Battle that such striving demands."
"Mankind will go on," I told them, "for a time at least."
"Mankind may go on, but there is no place for a person like me, and I am glad to leave it. The Defense Forces are disbanded, and the warships mothballed. Now only traders and starships for passengers ply the void between worlds."
"I would have you stay with me a little while longer," Mariel said to her.
"Leaving you is my only regret," Annika said softly looking at her, "but I know this is my time. If what this God says is true, perhaps we shall meet again."
"I have watched over both of you all your lives, and I have felt the growing displacement in your hearts. In the future you two will be reborn again. Your souls share an eternal bond of destiny together, and it is bound to mine. One day, when the Spirit of Battle is again needed by mankind, you will be reborn."
"What is your name God of War?" Annika asked, her voice weaker as her life force ebbed.
"I am Ares," I told her, leaning close as her eyes closed, "and once, so long ago that it is now only myth, you were my beloved, Xena of Amphipolis, Warrior Princess, and for a time, Goddess of War."
"I I remember," she whispered. Then her spirit was gone. I heard only Mariel sobbing across the deathbed from me. I looked into her reddened eyes, and said, "you were always her soul mate and love. You have found and lost her so many times, and you shall again."
"I believe you," Mariel said, "but now I am alone again."
"No," I told her, "always she outlived you, but now for the first time, it is you who are alone. Be comforted, for at last you have spared her that pain."
"Oh God," she cried out, so much like Gabrielle, "I loved her, body and soul but her spirit was yours, and in losing it, she has died."
"Come with me now, Mariel, there is a last tribute I would pay."
As I had on a world distant in time and space, I carried her body to the roof. There with a wave of my hand I created a funeral pyre, and laid her body on it. And as befitted mankind's last warrior, I kindled it with God's fire. With Mariel I mourned, as the flames leaped, rising into the night. As I had before, I collected and divided the ashes. Mariel took half and kept them with her until she too passed away. The rest I took to my citadel, and set them with the chakram, and the swords, and the cherished ashes of one who had passed away long, long ago. Then I spent years reading all the histories of the race of mankind. I left the citadel only once after that. In 6,922 A. D. I went to be with Mariel as she died, and I gave her comfort with the promise of a future life. And when she was gone, I felt the long cycle coming to its end at last. Mankind had no need of a God of War, just as they had no need of a warrior with the Spirit of Battle to drive her on. So being a God, and the last of the renegades, I prepared a place, and I set a shield about the citadel, and I fell into the Sleep of the Gods. It was 6,962 A.D. and for one thousand six hundred years, the Great Complacency continued. In the passing of the centuries, the planet Terminus Prime became a dead world, stricken from the star charts of the Kingdom. The Defense Forces were a legend of the past, nearly a myth. And none remembered the God of War. They had forgotten other things as well. Now they believed A.D. stood for "After Dissolution", and commemorated the Dissolution of Nations, the oldest event in historical memory. So Mote It Be.
FIRE IN THE NIGHT
The starship Osiris took on passengers at Sideon in the Valara system, and made the jump to Wingate. It was 8,562 A.D. I had booked passage in the steerage class, at the rear of the ship, where the quarters were less spacious, and much cheaper than in coach. In the last seventy-two years I have jumped one hundred and eighty-four times. You see I'm hunting, hunting for one person. It's worse than the proverbial "asteroid in a galaxy".
There are 1,814 worlds, plus 23 "dead" planets, and at the rate I'm going, I'll never see them all, even if I live to be five hundred years old. I don't think it will take that long though. I have faith. I have to have I'm already one hundred and twenty-six years old. I'm following a dream, and when I've been told it's a hopeless dream, I say, "well what are dreams for?" But I think I'll find her, sometime in the next ten years. In my dreams I'm about the right age to find her, and it could be any day now. I've been telling myself that these last twenty years.
I started having prophetic dreams when I was a little child. At first they scared me, and night was a time of terrors. The counselors helped me a lot. They taught me how to stand outside the dreams, and to memorize the details, so I could wake up and "read" my memory like a story in a media crystal. The dreams always came true, and that was the best part. For a time they brought me joy. When I was twelve I started seeing things that I thought must be the ancient past. There were violent clashes, like the legends of battles inconceivable bloody dreams with armies of warriors fighting. Nobody fought now. There were no armies. There were no battles. That was all thousands of years ago. Everyone knew that. They regarded that part of history with embarrassment and even denial. All the counselors said I must be dreaming of either historical events, or sick fantasies. I read them the details, and they tried to match them to historical records. They never once succeeded. I still had prophetic dreams too, so I hoped I wasn't completely sick. That's what they thought. There were years of treatment to "help" me. I embraced it in hopes of being "cured" of these horrific images. I was a developing teenage girl, but I was so disturbed I never even investigated my own body. The terror of nighttime was just starting.
One night I dreamed of battle primitive battle with combat hand to hand. In the dream there was a warrior woman with black hair and piercing blue eyes. She was a leader, and with her stood a man in black who carried a sword and a metal ring. But the worst part, the part that turned me into a hunter, was that with them stood a blond haired woman, and it was me. I had this same dream every night for twenty-one days. Then I left home, and I have been searching ever since. You see, my dreams always came true, and now I knew I hadn't been dreaming of the ancient past. I had been dreaming of a future to come. Until I'd seen myself, I was able to deny what I should have known. After seeing myself, there was no way I could deny what was to be. And it got worse. I dreamed I was in battle, and I dreamed that I killed. I wielded two short dagger-like weapons, with curved guards at the hilts, and I killed. It was unthinkable. I was sick, and sick with shame. I had to leave before I gave myself away with some detail or some symptom. I would have died if anyone had found out. Night after night I woke from the dreams, and checked the details. It was always so bad. I would run from my room retching and heaving. After that I lay in my bed, and I quietly sobbed until morning, biting my covers lest anyone hear me and investigate. Finally, I couldn't stand the stress. I took a few things, booked passage off world, and fled the only home I'd ever known. I was only twenty-three. I hid on the world I'd fled to, anonymous and alone, for thirty-one years. I loathed myself. I dreamed almost every night, even when I had made myself pass out with alcohol and drugs. More and more often, the dreams began to center on the black haired warrior woman, and I started to call her the Dark Angel. She was beautiful, and utterly terrifying. She was a savage. She called to me. I had to find her. I began to hunt, hoping to confront the one who had ruined my life.
As the Osiris closed the jump to Wingate, and prepared to fall into orbit, a speck leaped out of the void. The configuration was alien, unknown. It wasn't anything the crew had ever seen. It was so very, very small. The crew hailed it with annoyance rather than fear. There was nothing to be afraid of, not in dozens of lifetimes. The speck resolved into a ship, an unknown ship. It stooped upon the Osiris like a raptor. Allowed to approach, it came within a twenty miles, and then it fired. A lance of brightness flashed across the space between the ships. The Osiris' hull was breached in many places. In steerage class, we survived a little longer. I opened a viewport as the ship rocked beneath my feet. I saw the attacker sliding away into the void, and then it jumped. The Osiris was breaking up in space. We were doomed, and I knew it. I was sad, but my life had been bitter with shame and fear, and deep down I welcomed oblivion. I turned from the viewport to find a place to await the end, and coming towards me was a woman in a crew uniform. She was tall, and I could tell she was strong. Then she looked at me, and her eyes were blue. Her long hair was straight and black, cropped in bangs in front, falling past her shoulders in back. She saw me, and stared at me. I started towards her, but I never spoke a word to her, nor she to me. I had found her I knew it in my heart. I knew it for perhaps fifteen seconds as the hull collapsed, spilling the contents of the Osiris into space. It was so very, very cold. I thought to myself, "what are dreams for."
WHAT DREAMS ARE FOR
Mankind's Great Complacency ended with the destruction of the Osiris at Wingate. It will be remembered forever as the beginning of the fall of the Kingdom. In the next thirty-five years the aliens struck again and again. Fear gripped the people, and they didn't know what to do. The idea of fighting had been bred out of them. Legends of the Defense Forces were distasteful rumors on some worlds suppressed, on others regarded as pornographic. In 1,814 worlds there did not exist even a single warship. Hell, on 1,814 worlds there probably wasn't a single weapon of war. There certainly weren't any warriors. Mankind had bred itself into a herding species, peaceful, conformist, doomed. At first the counsels of leaders hoped a negotiation would stop the destruction. Ships filled with emissaries sought contact with the attackers in the void. When they found it, their starships were destroyed. Tens of thousands lost their lives in these futile attempts. The only negotiation the attackers sought was through force, their only apparent goal, the annihilation of human beings. Between 8,562 A.D. and 8,597 A.D., 467 starships were obliterated. The human race didn't know who their enemy was or where they came from. They had never seen an enemy face to face, had never spoken a word to them. They didn't know whether they originated in a neglected part of the galaxy, or came from outside it. Their warships appeared, brought death, and disappeared. Never were there any survivors. Never were there any demands. Finally, mankind was cowed. The starships entered space less and less frequently, having no hope in a confrontation. The worlds became cut off from each other, communicating only by unmanned ships. The Kingdom began to fragment into 1,814 individual planets, and fear kept them apart. Now, without a Spirit of Battle, they were unable to even conceive of fighting back, and unable to believe they could prevail. There was no balance of dark and light, and without that balance they were ripe for the invasion of their planets. The ancient battle strategy of "divide and conquer", proven so long ago on their forgotten home world, opened the way for a one sided slaughter which could not be dignified with the name of war.
As the reaping of the planets began, mankind was again taken by surprise, and being largely cut off, didn't even realize it was underway, for nearly sixty years. Even then the news traveled slowly, seldom more than a few planets ahead of the wave of destruction. The attackers positioned satellites above a planet, uncontested in their labors. When they were ready, the satellites bathed the surface with high levels of deadly radiation, roasting everything to a depth of two miles. Population after population watched the appearance of the satellites, thinking them harmless, and then they died. It was quick, but not without suffering. It left the planets burned, but in a few decades, ready for alien colonization. Mankind stood by helpless, and watched. By 8,721 A.D. the Kingdom was reduced to 647 worlds, on which humans awaited their doom, in terror or denial or ignorance.
8,721 A.D. My dreams had turned dark, and I was being driven out of them. There was slowly spreading warmth in my veins, and my organs started to work again. My blood was pumped by a heart which beat at first once a month, then once a week, then once a day. Faster now, and faster I took a breath for the first time in 1,759 years, and the air burned my lungs, but I endured it. I welcomed the burn. The next day, another breath, and then another, my heart racing one beat an hour. Blood moved, and muscles stirred in preparation for life. Consciousness wavered between dream and waking, and I struggled up to meet it. Now my heart beat ten times an hour, and my breathing matched its pace. My eyes snapped open in the dark. In the next days my senses awoke, but there was only darkness, and the hardness of cold stone, and the staleness of dead air. Still I had not moved. I could not. I lay awaiting some charge of energy, my body restored to function, my mind restored to wakefulness. I was more than any being who lived, but so much less than I had been.
8,722 A.D. From the ancient sword of the God of War, which guarded the foot of my slab, to the chakram which lay beneath my head, two blue white bolts of lightning sizzled in the dark. They enveloped me, crackling through me, surrounding me in a cocoon of blinding webbing. I felt the power course through me, and I felt the power stay within me. The power of a God was restored to me. With it came my memories. I was Ares, the God of War. It was 1,800 years since I had watched Mariel Havarr die. In all those years, no warrior had been born, no Spirit of Battle had enflamed a mortal to the greater good. Xena and Gabrielle had only been reborn once in all that time. Xena as a crewman aboard the ill-fated starship Osiris, yearning to explore space, and Gabrielle as a tortured and luckless dreamer. They had died in the endless cold of space, useless but to herald the end of the Kingdom of Man.
I buckled on my sword belt, and hung the chakram from its hook. A second battered sword I strapped to my back. Into one pocket I put a crystal, holding the histories of many bards. Over my left shoulder I hung a breastplate of bronze, and over my right I hung a net which cradled two ancient urns. Then I neutralized the energy seal on the massive door of stone which had sealed my chamber, and with the strength of a god I muscled it aside. The halls of the citadel echoed with the steps of my boots as I paced the empty halls, stirring centuries of dust. The elements had worked their slow ruin on my citadel, engraving the years on the stones. It didn't matter. The walls had held. Finally I came to the gates of the citadel; once twelve million warriors had walked through these gates. Now there was only silence. Embedded in the keystone of the arch above the gate was the celestial clock, still counting the time since the Son of a forgotten God had been born on a forgotten world. March 15, 8,722 A.D. It was the Ides of March. It was 6,716 years to the day since I had returned to the world as a God, and met my favorite on the high hill of Athens as a battle raged. My memory supplied me with another connection. March 15, 2056, Xena had been dead for five years, but in New Haven, Connecticut in the old United States of America, on Earth, Lt. Diana Miller, the first of her reincarnations had been born. From then until now was 6,666 years. Somewhere out there the beast had arisen. My dreams had turned dark, and I had been summoned to wakefulness. Soon there would be war.
Somehow I had to find the reincarnations of Xena and Gabrielle, and hopefully I would find them together. I didn't know how old they would be or what they would be like. I hoped the Spirit of Battle was strong in them. I felt it would be needed. Though I have written what happened during my sleep, I had no way of knowing of the Fall of the Kingdom of man. At the time I awoke, I only felt that the human race was in trouble, and that I had been awakened for a reason. Somehow I had to find out what was going on in the worlds without end, for I didn't know if the end was coming, or had come. I reached out with my senses all across the face of Terminus Prime I searched. There was only the silence of the mind. I was alone, the only intelligent being on the planet. Since the dawn of Gods or men, no one had ever been so alone. Later, I discovered I had been alone on Terminus Prime for 1,700 years.
The first step in war is to prepare for battle. In the cliffs behind the ruins of the Military Academy there had been huge blast doors, embedded, shielded, and camouflaged. Three of them stood bare in the evening sun, each a thousand feet square. Nine more would be hidden behind the façade of rock. Behind each huge door was the top of a shaft a thousand feet square, and three miles deep. Where the shafts ended was the hanger of the warships. It was a complex that could have held eighteen million souls, one of six on the planet, built as a haven for the Defense Forces in their heyday. If Terminus Prime had ever been besieged, the entire population could have survived there, underground.
I vanished from the gate, and reappeared in front of the center door. With the senses of a God I probed the door and the shaft. Intact after all this time and the shaft was clear. Terminus Prime had been chosen for its stability. In the entire time it was populated there had never been more than a minor tremor. With my mind I saw the hanger, dark, empty of life, but filled with the warships of a long dead army. I vanished from the gate, and the flames and lightning of my arrival in the hanger, were the first light in that place since the power had shut down. I kindled God's Fire in my palm, and by its light surveyed the space. The smooth arched shapes of the hulls surrounded me and at the end was a ship very special in my memory. Slightly larger than the others, it had been the last completed. It was docked closest to the shaft, for it had also been the last warship decommissioned. The hull was iridescent, and glass smooth, colored red in homage to a ship from the long ago time when only twelve warships had stood between mankind and the invaders. It was a military tradition I had insisted on for millennia. One red ship. In the whole fleet, no matter how large it became, only one ship could bear that color, and my name.
In a flash I stood beside it, and stroked the hull with my hands. Here, next to the iris port, engraved in the metal by a special laser which could bite that alloy, were the names of every Star Captain who had mastered a ship of that name. First on that list was my mortal and immortal beloved, Xena of Amphipolis - 2,006 A.D. My heart skipped a beat. At the bottom of the list was the name of my last favorite, and the last captain commissioned as its master Star Capt. Annika Sherril - Anno Domini 6,895. Three hundred and four names separated them. Even a God, even the God of War, can feel sentiment and loss. As I stood, and ran my hand over those names, a tear slid down my cheek. Now all that remained of mankind's last warrior was my memories, and the ashes in one of the urns I carried. It had been so very long ago. It made me feel old. I stood entranced, my thoughts turned inward to the ancient days, to the bright sun of Greece, when mankind was young, and in their struggles they had worshipped renegade Gods from across space. My father Zeus, my uncle Hades, my beautiful sister Aphrodite, and the others. Even my imperious sister Athena. All long gone. I missed them all. I felt my age almost eleven thousand years. It's not easy to be the last of the Gods, in a time when Gods aren't needed. Then, slowly, the mood lifted. I smiled, because I knew I was back for a reason. Mankind needed at least a God of War again. Perhaps not the others, but mankind needed me. I threw back my head, and shouted at the top of my lungs, and the words echoed back again and again through the hanger.
"I am Ares, the God of War, and nothing shall stand against me. I am the Flame from which the Spirit of Battle shall be kindled. Only in me is there the Balance of the Dark and the Light."
In the days that followed I restarted the power grid, which had been set to shut down after being deserted for a hundred years. The systems came on line one after another, until the base was mostly functional. Sensors probed space around the planet, and I prepared the Ares for war.
On the equinox of old Earth, a warship flew for the first time in 1,737 years. At first I played it safe, rising up the shaft and passing the huge door. I circled the planet on a shakedown run, and all systems read nominal. Next, I accelerated to one-quarter attack speed, and left Terminus Prime behind. Beyond the system I set navigation controls, and made a short jump to the Destri system, with its binary star and three dead planets. The Ares performed flawlessly. The next test I wanted to make that day was a weapons test. I couldn't resist. I am the God of War, and weapons are my thing. The last generation warships were once the terror of the galaxy, and the rumor of their coming had usually caused their enemies to flee rather than engage them. I activated a M/AM and targeted the second planet. A dead world, no larger than Mercury, it was mostly molten rock. The M/AM is an enhanced fourth generation matter/anti-matter torpedo, and once targeted will follow across the void, even making jumps to follow the target. It is seldom necessary. It can move at 32% of the speed of light. After acquiring the target I willed the weapons console to fire. Shields surrounded the Ares. There was no sound or sensation that the M/AM had been fired. The planet simply ceased to exist. There wasn't even much debris. The Ares carried up to a two dozen such torpedoes, for they were small, no bigger than a coffin. In the magazine at the hanger a special vault stored several thousand of these class 12b projectiles. I accelerated the Ares to full attack speed and left the Destri system behind. Anyone with ears, let alone sensors would have registered that blast. Clear of the Destri system I made a navigation test. I commanded the navigation control to "skip-jump" back to Terminus Prime. This was for the purpose of confusing a following craft. In three minutes the Ares made thirty random jumps, criss-crossing its trail and ending up at Terminus Prime. I was elated. I barnstormed the planet, swooping, diving, and rolling, just like that old hot rodder, Adam McClellan, had once done over the White House lawn. By the time I slipped down the shaft to the hanger I was flushed, and the call of battle was loud in my ears. I stepped out through the iris port onto the hanger floor, and whooped at the top of my lungs. I had only been back in the hanger for ten minutes when the sensors triggered the alarms signaling an incoming ship.
"Did you hear about Felicity?" Kara asked me as we walked through the halls between classes.
"No," I answered, breaking out of my thoughts.
"The drone came down this morning," she said, "the news is all over, how can you be so oblivious?"
"Back off," I said, looking her in the eyes, "you wanna tell me what happened, or you wanna comment on my current events? I'm a space engineering major, not a journalism major."
"Alright, take it easy Dale, geezus," Kara said, "you've got a scary temper sometimes, you know that?"
"You ain't seen nothing yet," I muttered under my breath, then to Kara I asked, "so what happened to Felicity?"
"Well, they were roasted I guess. They're saying the drone jumped while it was still in the atmosphere, or it wouldn't have gotten away. The goblins were halfway through ringing them with satellites, and you know what that means."
My gods I thought to myself, Felicity had almost three billion people, and a drone would have taken a week to get here. They're all dead by now, and Kara's acting like it's news from homecoming.
"I've gotta get to chem class," I said, just wanting to get away from her, "I'll see you later."
"Ok, see ya."
I can't stand how shallow most of the girls are. They don't seem to realize it's only a matter of time before the goblins get here. I guess I've got less patience, but that's what happens when you have a single parent, instead of two, or three. I've had to do a lot more on my own than anyone I know who's my age. I mean how many of them run a household at seventeen? Geezus! My Dad's away in the capitol most of the week, and sometimes lately he doesn't get home for a couple weeks.
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Huh?" I croaked, jerking out of my thoughts.
"Dell to Dale, Dell to Dale do you copy Dale?"
"Hi ya Val," I say with a smile, Valerie is practically the only girl I like in the whole school. She's a history major, and she's a genius. Really. She was into ancient history and archeology when we were in junior high, and she's actually already published a scientific paper. Got a lot of attention for it too, 'cause it was about ancient war. Not exactly a popular topic on peace loving Dell.
"Gonna be around after classes? Wanna hang out? I've got something really kewl to show you something I found in the archives. I bet you'll love it."
Oh yeah, Valerie is hyper. But when she says she's found something "kewl" I have to see it. Last time she said that, she'd discovered how to distill Roxxian brandy we got smashed, and Dad never found out.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world Val. You know me, always ready to get my ass whipped for whatever you've got going," I giggle, and squeeze her shoulders, "see ya in an hour?"
"Great!" she says, nudging me with her hip, "it's a date."
We both crack up at that. I guess we have another thing in common. I'm too tall for most boys, and she's too smart. We've been close since fourth grade, when I moved to Dell, and we both enjoy scandalizing the cliques at school. They whisper that we're gay, and it doesn't bother us at all, because neither one of us really respects the ones whispering. Last time one of them said anything nasty, I stole her boyfriend for a week, then dumped him. He still tries to ask me out, and that incident was last year. "All's fair in war", that's what Val says, and she's studied the subject for real.
Last period was Zero Grav Chem II, and I could do that stuff in my sleep. It went fast, and then I was free for the weekend. I crammed my stuff in my locker, grabbed my belt pack, and headed for the front ramp. Valerie was waiting just outside with a hard shell case about three feet long. I didn't ask. Half the time she's toting some weird stuff, and mostly it doesn't make any sense to me anyway. You get used to that when your best friend is a genius.
"I can't wait to show you this," she bubbles, "I found the patterns, and made them in metallurgy during lunch break, and there probably aren't any like them in all the worlds without ends. You won't believe it, just wait till you see these."
"Ok," I say, smiling at her exuberance, "I'm convinced. Will it keep till we get home?"
"Oh yeah, it's been about 1,700 years since anyone's seen the likes of these, so I guess another fifteen minutes won't be a problem. But just wait till you see them, you'll see why I'm so hyper about this, I swear."
Now I know it's serious. Val doesn't "swear" unless it's extreme. I'm getting more and more curious now. For real.
Fifteen minutes walking seems like a pilgrimage to Chartes Stele. I mean it seems to take forever. The ways are crowded, and the lifts are packed. Of course we get to my place in record time anyway it just seems slow when we're in a hurry.
I palm the door locks, and we go inside. I scream "shuddap" at the message drone, and it goes away for awhile. In the kitchen we grab sodas, and take them to the loft. I crank the quad so the music throbs through the house, and I kick off my shoes.
"Ewww, kewl nails," Val squeals as she sees the iridescent shifting colors on my toenails keeping time to the music, "tell me where!"
"Mason's half a credit, three-quarters and you can get your fingernails done at the same time," I tell her, happy to see she's so impressed. Course I knew she'd be <grin>.
"Glad I know you Dale," she says, "cause you save me from bein a dork with the fashion sense of a frog."
"You're a cute frog though," I tell her, and she really is cute, (SWF, 17, bl/gr, 5'4", 112), and a genius. She's smart enough to know it, but she spews soda on the floor laughing anyway. "Geezus," I exclaim dodging, " I didn't think it was that funny."
"Sorry guess I'm just hyper."
"Duh! So what's in the case that's got ya so hyper I've NEVER seen you like this before," I say as she puts the soda to her mouth. Timing was perfect soda fountains up again, and now she's choking and rolling on the couch in hysterics.
"Oh Gods Oh Gods just shut it, I'm dying."
Now I'm laughing so hard tears are blurring my vision. What are friends for.
After a couple songs finish out, and we've gotten our wits together, she sets the case on the coffee table, and palms the lock pad. There's a hiss, and the lid pops up. She lifts it to reveal a velvet lining.
"Are those swords?" I ask, not really sure.
"They sure are, patterned after trainers used by the Defense Forces back in the 6,700's," she says, "these are molecularly accurate. Sharp as hell too."
"They're beautiful," I say, mesmerized, and I can't stop myself from lifting one from the case, "The hilt feels like it was made for my hand."
"Here," Val says lifting the other sword, "try this."
She is holding a media 4crystal configured for a personal. I let her slide the crystal into the receiver in my left temple. It must contain motor skills. In seconds I have absorbed the material it is a training manual implant. It ejects and I can retain or delete the info. I select retain, and the sword feels like an old friend. I see Valerie putting the crystal into her receiver, and watch as her eyes glaze over. Moments later she spins the sword on her palm, circles her upper body in a blur of silver blade, and comes to the salute posture. I mirror her movements. We spend the afternoon running through the contents of the manual. It takes every bit of strength and energy we have, but I feel more alive than I ever have. I can see she feels it too. I find I am doing things I have never thought possible the back flips and stuff. When it's over, we lock up the swords, and go to the kitchen to stuff ourselves. Sword training makes a person really, really hungry.
"Ya know Dale," she tells me, "I think we're the only people in like 1,700 years, to use that manual that's when the Defense Forces were disbanded."
Now it's my turn to choke on my soda. "No way! You are kidding me right?"
"Yes way," she continues, "I know no one else has duped that manual, cause I had to configure the transfer to 4crystal. Last time anyone accessed the archive they made a disc and no one has used a disc since about 7,000 A.D.
I'm shocked. This is the kewlest, the most ultimate thing she has ever come up with. What's new to me, and has made me feel so alive, is something so old it's forgotten.
"Wait till I get done with the archives," she laughs, bringing me back from my thoughts.
"What do you mean? There's more Val?"
"Oh yeah, I've pulled a few more files, and I'm gonna transfer them ASAP. We are gonna do the whole DF training course at least I am."
"Count me in Val. I wouldn't miss this for the worlds."
That's how it started. Valerie made the 4crystals and we uploaded the manuals. It was hard not to show off. I wanted to crack skulls, and kick ass when the cliques pulled their catty crap, but somehow I kept it together. It was senior year, and we would graduate in a few months. Besides, I wanted the star charts. Val had found antique star charts in the archives, charts from the 6,500's to 7,500's. They showed the dead worlds, and they hadn't been looked at since then. That was the time of the Defense Forces, and Val and I were getting cultish about that stuff. When I uploaded the charts I was in heaven. I stayed up for three days straight seeing the ancient skies, and the worlds of the lost void. I was in heaven for real. Then trouble came.
Everyone at school was getting crazy, anticipating graduation in two weeks. Seniors like us were out of control. It happened at lunch, when too many crazed kids were packed too close together in the cafeteria. Val and I were eating and laughing at a table in the center of the room. Of course half the rink hockey team had to be looking for a laugh that afternoon, and we were convenient victims. Kids can be cruel, old enough to hurt, and needy enough of peer approval to do it. This guy Martin came up behind Val and grabbed her, lifted her right off her seat as his buddies ringed us laughing. He was trying to force her to kiss him, and she just pushed off the seat, forcing him the direction he was pulling her. They both went down, but only Val got up she'd managed to land with her elbow in his groin, all 112 lbs. on the point of her elbow. He was holding himself and writhing on the floor. Val started cracking up, so did I. His buddies didn't think it was so funny. They tried to grab both of us, calling us dykes and lezzies, and swinging at us like we were guys on an enemy team. Guess there was a lot of frustration getting vented. I think one of the things about the manuals is that the info becomes a part of you, and when you need it you can't help but use it. We broke bones, and dislocated joints. When it was over there were nine guys who had to be taken to the Med Center, and we were only shaken up. As we sat in the Administration office I tried to put together what had happened. I could replay everything in slow motion. We discussed it rationally and in detail with the Principals and the Counselors. It terrified them. They maintained that we should have been too traumatized to remember details, but worse than that, they blamed us for not being victims, the idiots. I guess what really screwed us was that in the end I told them to "fuck off", and Val laughed at them.
They actually took us to jail. I couldn't believe it, but they said we were too dangerous to run around loose, until they could understand how two girls could mince the hockey team. That night in jail it got bad, really bad. After the guards had made their rounds, and the holding cell was locked down, the other six women, all real criminals, decided they were going to put us in our place. Val and I fought for our lives. When the guards made their rounds at shift change they saw blood running out of the cell. We were the only ones still breathing. On top of each of the other inmates we had put the jailhouse shivs they had attacked us with, makeshift, but deadly weapons. Only their owners' finger prints were on them. It didn't matter. We were charged that night. Like everything else about Dell, it wasn't serious, not really. The jail I mean, not the charges. We were facing possible psych deletes.
The new cells we were put in were supposed to be maximum security, and guards were stationed just down the hall. The manuals had taught us how to breach security and extract from confinement. We spent three hours in those cells, just long enough to short out the locks with the cables they used instead of bedsprings. We slipped out of the cells, and had a twelve-second engagement with the four guards. We gagged them, and locked them in their own cells. Then we slipped out a public exit into the night. A pair of 17 year old fugitives the first Defense Force cadets in 1,700 years.
The next day, we commandeered a private yacht at the space-port, lifted from Dell, and made a jump. I had never piloted a starship, even a small yacht. The jump was flawless. The next thing we knew we were above a dead world, far, far away. Two years later, the goblins came, and Dell was roasted. We are the only survivors of our world.
OPENING MOVE - KING TAKES PAWN x 6
Sensor alarms were blaring in the hanger, and the computer's voice was reporting on the incoming ship.
"Alert, Incoming ship. Alert, Incoming ship. Configuration unknown. Jump was terminated at the trailing Lagrange point. Standby, scanning."
The ship had terminated its jump 60 arc degrees behind Terminus Prime's moon, and in the same orbit. Flawless navigation control. Whoever was driving wasn't a sloppy pilot. They could have stayed there forever without expending any energy. I wasn't surprised that the configuration was unknown the data banks hadn't been updated in 1,700 years.
"Alert, Incoming ship, configuration unknown, origin within the Kingdom. Current speed 20,000mph, with course shift to orbital trajectory. Standby, scanning"
They had chosen to fall into a planetary orbit around Terminus Prime at a stately speed of 20,000mph. Not an attack maneuver, at least not an obvious one.
"Alert, Incoming ship, no weapons detected on any wavelength. Two life forms aboard, biologically human, with enhancements. Course and speed steady. Now approaching planetary exosphere. Standby."
It was not a warship, and not an alien. Although the configuration was unknown, it was a ship with two humans aboard. Humans with enhancements, now what was that supposed to mean? They were approaching the outermost layers of the atmosphere, on a constant course.
"Alert, Incoming ship is scanning the surface. Onboard sensors are not intrusive, shielding is opaque to ship's sensors. Standby. Change in course and speed detected. Ship is entering orbit. Nominal altitude is 500 miles, velocity 20,000mph."
The ship had achieved a stable orbit 500 miles above the Terminus Prime. The computer was reporting that the ship's scanners couldn't see through the base's shields. I realized all they could see was a dead planet. They had no idea I was here.
Orbiting my world was a defenseless ship with two human occupants, the first I had heard of in 1,700 years. I sensed a challenge aboard, not a threat. But there was potential danger for them in an undefended orbit, and I felt their safety was my responsibility now that they were here. More than that, I simply wanted to meet them. They would have current information on the status of the Kingdom.
I went aboard the Ares, and I lifted up the shaft. At the top, I initiated full shielding as the blast door opened. As I accelerated into the light of day, the sensor alarms went off again. The computer's voice filled the Ares.
"Alert, Incoming ships. Alert, Incoming ships. Six ships have terminated jumps at the trailing Lagrange point. Alien configurations. Active shielding at level 2. Weapons detected in classes 2, 3a, 6, and 7b. Standby. Analysis; squadron of six warships, armed, speed 35,000mph, course to intercept prior arrival, behavior status hostile."
The message repeated, but I didn't hear it. Above me a race to the death had been joined. Six alien warships were moving to attack the unarmed human ship in the skies over my home world. Above me were two human lives, the first I'd encountered in 1,700 years, and they were precious to me. The Spirit of Battle blazed in my heart. By the Gods, no one was going to kill them in my skies!
"Full attack speed," I ordered the navigation control, "intercept course. Weapons control, charge x-ray laser, maintain full shields."
The Ares leapt forward, atmospheric friction causing it to leave a visible trail. I didn't care. Within its shields, the ship glowed with the blue-white of death, now blindingly bright, like a dwarf star racing up from the surface of Terminus Prime. By the time the Ares entered the mesosphere, and the trail faded, it was moving at 100,000mph, and closing the distance to the attackers. I hailed the human ship.
"Unknown human ship, this is the Ares. Acknowledge. You are under attack. There is a squadron of six hostiles closing on your position. Acknowledge."
The response I got to my transmission left me shocked.
"Uh Ares? We're under attack? Where are they? Who are you?"
It sounded like a girl. She didn't even know her ship was being followed. She had no idea she was under attack. Definitely civilians, and then I remembered, the attackers were using minimal shields. The were easily visible to me, but the civilian ship didn't have intrusive sensors. They were blind.
"Unknown human ship, this is the Ares. I am closing on your position, and will engage your attackers. Make landfall at maximum speed. Follow the coordinates I transmit. I will cover your retreat."
"Uh Ares are you a warship? Are you the fast bright thing we can see out the ports? We can't see you on our sensors," they transmitted, and then they must have left their com link open, because I heard what sounded like a conversation between two girls!
"Geezus, look at that thing move it's glowing how come we can't see it on our sensors?"
"You think it's really a warship? He said we're being attacked, but I don't see anything."
"Look, are those the coordinates?"
"Is this for real?"
I closed the distance to the human ship, and sped past it, back up their trail. I could see the attackers ahead, and I was coming up on them fast. The Ares could target four hostiles at a time, so I picked the leading four. I was about to drop my shields to fire, when an over-ride locked the shields in place, and I saw a beam streak from the closest attacking ship. I was between them and their target, with full shields. I don't think their sensors could detect me. The Ares took the bolt meant for the fleeing civilian ship, and the shields held. The weapons control had maintained target-lock on the four leading attackers. In the second between their first and second firings, the Ares' fire control auto-dropped the shields and fired. Four bolts sprang from the x-ray laser, four hits, four kills. One of the remaining two attackers fired again, and again the Ares' shields held. They were target-locked, as good as dead. Then they broke off, and tried to flee. Their sensors had read the radiation signature of a class 11 weapon, and they were attempting to flee back into the void.
"No you don't you bastards," I swore at them, "you don't come hunting in my back yard and live to tell what you saw."
It was no contest. No ship can outrun the speed of light. Nothing can outrun a laser. The Ares had built a charge, and as the would-be attackers accelerated away, the shields dropped, and the Ares fired. Two beams leaped after them, catching them and destroying them. It was over so fast. Perhaps six seconds from first to last firing. I hoped they hadn't had time to transmit a message to where ever it was they came from.
The Ares back flipped and rolled, reversing its course, and decelerating to one-quarter attack speed to catch up with the civilian ship. They were following the trajectory and course coordinates I had transmitted to them, and I caught up with them during the descent. They didn't know I was there. I had maintained full shields, until they were on the ground and powered down. You can never be too sure.
They landed in front of the center blast door, and I knew how impressive those doors looked. I set the Ares down next to them, and dropped the shields. To them it would have appeared as if a red ghost ship had materialized out of nowhere on their flank. First impressions are very important, and I wanted them awed. They would soon be standing on the home world of the Colonial Defense Forces, and the home world of the God of War. Clearance for civilians to land here had been nearly impossible to obtain when the Defense Forces had been active. The were being granted a great boon, whether they realized it or not. I opened the iris port, and I stepped out of the Ares. I could see two figures through the dark ports in the cockpit of the small starship. I motioned for them to debark. One of the figures nodded. A seam appeared in the forward part of the hull, describing a rectangular port. The port slid aside, and two figures emerged. They looked like teenage girls. My heart lurched. One was tall, almost six feet, blue eyed, with dark hair, straight and falling past her shoulders. The other was short and blond. Her green eyes stared out below her bangs as she examined the Ares. Then they turned their gaze to me. What they did next almost broke my heart.
Together they reached over their right shoulders, and from scabbards on their backs each drew a sword. Together they spun them twice on their palms, circled their upper bodies in a silver blur, and presented them vertically in front of themselves. It was an ancient salute, once given by cadets to officers during military ceremonies. It was a part of the tradition of the Colonial Defense Forces. They had performed the salute flawlessly, with speed and precision, in perfect synchronization, and their eyes had never left mine. I could do only one thing. In a blur I drew my ancient blade from the scabbard at my left hip. I slashed the blade horizontally to the right and then to the left, then spun it vertically around my hand in front of my body. I brought it to my right side where I spun it on my palm twice, circled my upper body, and brought the blade to salute position, vertical in front of me. It was the salute of a Star Captain, all I dared reveal. They waited, eyes locked on mine. At the count of ten, I reversed my movements, and sheathed my sword. Two seconds later they reversed the movements they had made, ending with a smooth resheathing of the swords behind their backs. I was in shock. Where had they learned those movements? I had to find out. I walked to where they stood, still at attention.
"Name yourselves, warriors," I ordered.
"Dale Sherril, fugitive from the world of Dell," the tall one said.
"Valerie Havarr, fugitive from the world of Dell," said the blond.
DOWN MEMORY LANE
In the following days I questioned them closely about the status of the Kingdom, and the events of the last 1,700 years. I questioned them about their lives, and how they had acquired their Defense Force training. The way they could absorb information astonished me. The fact that they could immediately apply what they had learned was even more amazing. They were almost equal to third year cadets, but they also had practical experience. Added to this, they had the knowledge of the Kingdom's advances, achieved since I had entered the Sleep of the Gods. As I came to know them better I could feel the Spirit of Battle growing in them day by day. Just being immersed I this environment pushed them to become more committed as warriors. What had started as a game, became their way of life. And I discerned the spirits of Xena and Gabrielle in them. I rejoiced. They were two seventeen-year-old girls, but they were so much more. I had the beginnings of an army, and perhaps mankind had another chance. I almost ruined it.
One afternoon, as we sat under trees near the ruins of my citadel, they told me of how the Great Complacency had led to the vulnerability of mankind, leaving them defenseless before the attackers they called the goblins. No living human had ever met one of these attackers, and no one knew where they originated. In the last 160 years, the Kingdom had gone from 1,814 prosperous and peaceful worlds, to 647 isolated planets, filled with doomed and terrified people. Worlds of people who were dying as we spoke.
I was furious. How could mankind have let itself fall so low? I knew I was working myself up, but I couldn't help it it was too close to my heart. From the time before man had stood on two legs, the creatures of Earth had struggled in competition, had conquered, and had survived. From the dark of their primal past, to the balance of dark and light, countless generations had lived and fought, hoping for a better future. The struggle had lifted mortals; had made them human. But finally, having achieved their dream, they turned their backs on the dark. All the clawing and sacrifice, the dreams, and the slow painful climb, from animal to the mortal image of God gone. And I felt the senseless waste. The generations of warriors who had given their lives, with courage, even when hope was lost, the hundreds of millions through the ages who had died in the service of the greater good, searching for the peace that can only be won with strength. Always walking the blade's edge, between vicious brutality and helpless passivity, balanced between the dark and the light by their commitment and their iron will. I remembered brave King Leonidas, my beloved Xena, the New Air Force Delta squadron, and the Defense Forces that had protected the colonists of the Great Expansion. All lost, all had died in vain. It was inexcusable! My anger overflowed. I leapt up from where I sat, outside my old citadel.
"By the Gods how could they betray us!" I screamed to the skies.
The fire of my wrath kindled the fire in my hands, and launched it at the ancient walls. I threw the bolt of energy with all the rage in my heart. It blasted the ancient stones, slamming through them and leaving a gaping hole, cratering the earth before it. My cadets stared at me, frozen in shock and terror.
"What are you?" Valerie screamed, tears running down her face, "You're no Star Captain!"
"Who are you?" Dale whispered, backing away from me.
"I am Ares, the God of War," I flung back at them, "and for nine thousand years warriors looked to me for the Spirit of Battle, for strength when hope had died, and for courage when strength alone would not suffice. All my life, I have driven mankind to conquer themselves, and the worlds around them. Yet when I looked away, they betrayed themselves, worse, they betrayed me, but worst of all, they betrayed all the heroes of the past."
And then I vanished with lightning and flames, leaving two seventeen-year-old girls cowering under the trees on a dead world. I reappeared in the hanger of the warships, and sought solace in memories. I locked myself in the Ares, and lifted into the shaft. The blast door opened above me, and I flew out. Below I could see two small figures as they approached the breach in the citadel wall I had blasted. They turned as the Ares passed overhead, and watched until I initiated the shields, and the ship disappeared.
"Look at this Val," Dale said, pointing to the margins of the hole in the citadel wall, "the rock is glassified, awesome."
"I see it," Val said, still shaken, "what kind of power could do this?"
"Well, I guess something like a 1 gigawatt laser, or an inert projectile moving at around 10,000 feet per second."
"Awesome. Guess he was pissed, huh," Val said, "think all the God stuff he was talking about is for real, or do you think he's insane?"
"Both probably," Dale replied, "I guess it was something we said, huh typical."
"Yeah, like when you told them to fuck off, and they threw us in jail."
"Well yeah, I guess. Come on let's check this place out it's ruins, you should get off on this Val."
"It's the citadel of the Defense Forces," Val said, interest calming her, "there were rumors of it in the archives."
"Looks real to me, let's go in there," Dale said, pointing to the Hall of Warriors, "looks like a lobby or something."
"Ok Dale, just keep your eyes open, huh," Val said, "this was a military base, could be booby-trapped."
"Right, that would be our luck, for sure."
They entered the Hall of Warriors, where twelve-foot tall statues of a hundred heroes lined the space in four ranks of twenty-five rows. The very first statue stopped them dead.
"Oh my God Dale, look at this!"
"Xena of Amphipolis, Founder of the Defense Forces of Old Earth, Mortal and Immortal Beloved and Favorite of the God of War geezus." Dale read off the plaque on the statue's base.
"Geezus is right, she looks just like you uh like you will in fifteen years, I think."
"I guess it's his girlfriend, huh."
"Sounds like Oh My God!" Valerie exclaimed.
"What Val? Geezus! I see it."
"Born 127 B.C. - Died 2,051 A.D." Dale read, "What's B.C.?"
"I have no idea, but it looks like she lived 2,178 years 2,179 if there was a year 0."
"Well it says mortal AND immortal this can't be true, isn't there always a mythical founder in these things?"
"I guess it could be," Val said slowly, "but why does she look like you?"
"You're asking me? History's your major. This is giving me the creeps."
"Me too lets look at some of the others, ok?"
"Fine with me, how about that one, or OH Shit!"
"What Dale? OH SHIT! Another one and this one really looks like you 'cause she's younger."
"Capt. Diana Miller, Born 2,056 A.D. - Died 2,137 A.D. First Reincarnation of Xena of Amphipolis???"
"That's it. I'm outta here. This is more insane than Ares. Reincarnation of Xena, huh, what the hell?"
"Right behind you Val, I'm like totally creeped out now."
"And what the fuck is this?"
"You tell me you're the science major."
"Looks like a holo-projector REALLY primitive wonder if it works?"
"Well, it's only got this dial, and one button, should I push it?"
"Why not Val, all it can do is blow up in our faces."
"Aren't you the optimist."
"Look Val, it's working that's Ares, and and that's me, err Xena, or one of her, I mean check that funky white mansion in the back"
"They're fighting those other guys Oh My God, she killed him." Val said with a gulp, then continued, "Now she's fighting with Ares against that couple, and "
"Shaddup and let me watch this."
"Ok, ok geezus. Gods they're fast."
"Look Val, she's waving and Ares is bowing."
"Now the other four are gonna fight them."
"She jumped over those arrows, and he deflected them two at once."
After watching in silence for a few more minutes,
"Look, that red ship shot the lawn, and knocked everyone down they look stunned."
"Dale, I think he's dying"
"Now what, Oh My God, Val that's you with wings, and like, you just appeared."
"I, err, she killed two of them with that ring thing, and Xena caught it."
"Awww, they're hugging."
"Oh no, that guy stabbed Ares he's, he's dead, and Xena's killing them both."
A few minutes later
"Did Xena just bring him back to life? Is that what I just saw?"
"Sure looked like it to me Dale."
"Ok, I've seen enough my head's spinning, I'm outta here."
"Me too! Hey I'm hungry Dale, we haven't eaten since breakfast, and I'm starving."
"You're always hungry Val."
Since they couldn't just vanish and reappear, it took them the better part of an hour to walk back to their ship, and by then Valerie Havarr was tired and cranky with low blood sugar, and Dale Sherril was withdrawn and cranky, overloaded by what she had seen. They attacked the galley in silence, and then dozed off. They were still asleep in their ship when I brought the Ares down next to them. I'd gone back to the Destri system and blown up the third planet. I was feeling pretty good.
THE FIRST STAFF MEETING
I dragged myself up out of this weird dream where Ares was giving his army a pep talk before a battle, and when I looked, all the warriors had Dale's face. I was hovering above looking down on all of them, and I had wings. All the Dales drew their swords, and as they raised them overhead they screamed, "Kill them all." I was waking up to voices from the front of the ship, near the hatch. It was Ares and Dale talking. Guess I know how that dream started.
"Permission to come aboard?" Ares asked.
"Permission granted if you promise not to blow up the ship," Dale replied, and in my mind's eye I could see her with a half-smile on her face.
"Who, me?" Ares asked, "I'm a perfect houseguest, and I always lift the seat."
"Huh?" Dale said, confused. I didn't understand the reference either then. Ares' speech was laced with quotes, phrases, and jokes from the past. It used to be really confusing. Now I usually know what he means.
"Never mind," Ares said, " I need to talk to you, both of you. Where's Valerie?"
"She's probably still sleeping. She's a heavy sleeper she'd sleep till noon if I'd let her." Dale confided to Ares. She was commenting on my sleeping habits which annoyed me a little and finished waking me up. Truth hurts.
"Just like Gabrielle," Ares said, almost wistfully.
"Huh?" Dale said, again confused, "Who's Gabrielle?"
"I'm up, I'm up," I said, coming out of my cabin, and losing my fight to suppress a yawn, "Who's Gabrielle?"
"Well, that's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about, he said as the three of us entered the galley.
"About Gabrielle?" Dale asked, as I yawned again.
"About Gabrielle, Xena, the Defense Forces, me, the God of War, Earth's history, yadda, yadda and et cetera." he said, smiling at us.
"Huh?" both of us asked.
"It's part of your training," he said, "military and civic history, and your own histories. This is very, very important. In fact, you're both as good as lost without it."
Oh great, I thought. Well here we are, space cadets, galactic runaways, attacked by aliens, rescued by a mad God obsessed with past wars, and now we're going to get the whole delusion, all wrapped up on a platter. At least we'll know where he's coming from. Guess we were supposed to humor him and sit here nodding and smiling. Not!
"Sure," I said, "nothing I'd like to do more. Ya know, hear the history of the Kingdom from someone who's missed the last 1,700 years, and claims to be another 9,000 years old. That would make you at least 10,700 years old. Well, civilization began 8,722 years ago with the 'Dissolution of Nations', a myth that's supposed to explain why people get along peacefully. A.D.? Ya know, 'After Dissolution' what's after the numbers in a date? Well, I was a history major. I even published a research paper."
He just stared at me. It was like he thought I was crazy, and he couldn't believe what I was saying. Finally, he said, "Well, actually I'm over to 11,000 years old, and the 'Dissolution of Nations' was in 2,056 A.D. Civilization was already over 8,000 years old then, and 4,000 years of that was before my time."
He paused for a few seconds, then added, "And people don't just get along naturally they usually try to kill each other."
I gave Dale a look, and she looked back at me with one eyebrow raised, and the hint of a grin. We were close to cracking up. He was really out there for sure.
"What?" Ares exclaimed, looking back and forth at us, "you don't believe me?"
"Oh yeah, I'm completely convinced," Dale said, then she lost it and started laughing out loud.
"We believe every word you've said," I added, cracking up totally. By now Dale was holding her stomach, and tears were starting in her eyes.
"I mean, never mind that I've spent my whole life studying history in school, and and " I couldn't keep it up, I just lost it and went into hysterics. Dale was collapsing, and Ares caught her.
"That's what they teach in history classes on Dell?" Ares asked in disbelief, "they're insane. They've been filling your heads with lies!"
"Well, now I'm persuaded," I managed to say between fits of laughter, "they're all crazy and the only one who's sane is you, huh?"
"Yeah, now you've got it," he said, then seeing us laughing even harder, "Now what?"
Dale had collapsed against Ares, heaving with laughter, tears rolling down her cheeks. She had her arms around his neck she certainly didn't seem scared of him, even if he was bonkers. He was holding her in his arms with this look of disbelief on his face, looking back and forth from her to me, and back again. I think the whole scene had a lot to do with stress induced mania.
Finally it dawned on him.
"You think I'm crazy? Me? The God of War? Crazy? The Furies are dead! I'm perfectly sane!"
That was it. I lost it totally. I was rolling on the floor laughing. If Dale hadn't been holding onto Ares she would have been on the floor with me. Finally after about five minutes, we started to get it together, wiping our faces. We couldn't look at each other without starting again.
"Look, I'm right, they're wrong. I'll prove it to you," Ares said.
Absolutely the wrong thing to say. Of course he could prove it every lunatic could. We both went down again, my sides were splitting so bad I could barely breath. Ares had let go of Dale, and she just collapsed like a rag doll.
Ares just looked at us on the floor, "Now what did I say?"
"Ok, I'll bite. How can you prove that everything we know is wrong?" I asked him, when I could finally speak without laughing. Ares was standing there with his hands on his hips, looking kinda pissed off, and I have to admit, kinda cute.
"You learned the Defense Forces training manuals by assimilating the info from crystals, right?" he asked.
That got us more serious. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a crystal.
"This is history. Real history, written by the bards who lived through it. Thousands of years of history, straight from the horses' mouths!"
I looked at the crystal he was holding. My mind was working now. I was hooked by the possibility of what he said was in it. I could tell it was a 2crystal, and I'd have to run a transfer to 4crystal personal, but I could do that in a couple hours. I wanted it.
Dale was looking at the crystal too, but she was also looking at Ares with this weird glow in her eyes.
"Ares," she asked him, "what's a horse?"
A HORSE IS A HORSE
Well, a horse was a domesticated quadrupedal herbivore, indigenous to old Earth, Equus caballus, used for transportation and heavy labor. It was in the crystal.
I reconfigured the equipment in the base's media lab to make the transfer from 2crystal to 4crystal in personal format. Ares watched over my shoulder the whole time, as if the original crystal was something precious. When he finally admitted to me there was no backup, my hands shook every time I held it. After I modified the equipment to produce crystals for the personal interfaces Dale and I had implanted in our temples, I duped the info. At first I couldn't understand how a 2crystal could store so much data. It took three 4crystals to hold it all. Ares just smirked, said something about God stuff, and left it at that. I spent a long time trying to unlock this mystery, and finally I found that the original crystal was coded as a double helix. The 2crystal was coded like DNA. He watched us like a hawk the day Dale and I uploaded. It took hours and hours. It wasn't just facts in those crystals there was something else. Ares said it was the Spirit of Battle we were getting. He said it came with knowing our past, who we were, who we'd been, and what it stood for. We were never the same afterwards.
He wasn't insane. Our teachers had never known what was missing. We had lost so much in the passing of the millennia, and the distances our peoples had traveled to Dell. I was in seventh heaven, and I now knew more history than anyone living, except for Dale and Ares. I was Gabrielle. I was Valerie Havarr. And I was sixty-two other reincarnations. They were all there. Ares said we were the first to remember all our past lives. I felt there was nothing I couldn't do. I had over 8,800 years of experience. He said either one of us was better than any Star Captain who had ever lived. I had never been so proud. He gave each of us a warship, and the run of the base. I had never flown a ship of any kind, but when I first stepped into the Aurora it was like coming home.
Dale was changed too. Maybe more than me. She was the reincarnation of Xena, the Warrior Princess, Lion of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations, Beloved and Favorite of the God of War, and once, she had been the Goddess of War and Strategy. She had been a bloodthirsty warlord, but had reformed. It was a complex and difficult position. Eventually she thrived on it. She was more reserved, introspective, and she could be hard as nails. The first time we trained with weapons after the upload there was no way I could match her. Before, we had been even. No more. In sword drills she would have killed me in the first twenty seconds. It was the same with spears, staves, chobos, daggers, bows, and everything else we trained with. There was one weapon she never trained with the chakram. There was only one. Ares never let it out of his sight, never even let us touch it. He said there was too much bound up in it to use it as a weapon, and he wouldn't say anything more. Dale made a molecularly exact copy, but for some reason it wouldn't rebound and return. Finally, she gave up, convinced there was a power inherent in the original that could not be duplicated. Ares gave her an "I told you so" look, and never discussed it again. He stopped carrying it, and we didn't know what he'd done with it, or where it was hidden.
We spent time on maneuvers in the warships. It was awesome. The speed, the weapons, the feeling of exhilaration commanding a ship that could do almost anything as fast as we could think to do it. We conducted live fire drills, dog fighting drills, formation drills. We practiced and tested, and practiced some more. Ares drove us endlessly. One day he took us to a star system, and as we watched, he destroyed the single planet of a double star with a M/AM torpedo. I was surprised by the twinge of conscience that affected me. I had inherited displeasure with the unnecessary destruction. I think that came straight from Gabrielle. That night I thought how incredible it was. Five weeks before, Dale and I had broken out of a jail on Dell. It was time to go hunting.
In the last week of April, on the old Earth calendar, we started the hunt for the attackers. We were a squadron of three warships, Ares led in the red flagship of his name, while I flew the Aurora, dawn of a new age. Dale had asked for, and received the commission for the warship, Sword of Amphipolis. For three weeks we traveled the void, jumping from planet to planet. Terminus Prime had been colonized early in the expansion, and the attacks had begun near the frontiers. In those first weeks we found old colonial worlds; untouched worlds, where the Complacency was most deeply entrenched. When we hailed them the populations fled underground, or begged for mercy. Not once did a ship lift from a planet to greet us. Not once did a transmission express thanks or hope for our mission. After two weeks of this treatment, Ares joked that we should, "give them what they expected", and torpedo their planets. After three weeks, Dale started requesting volunteers for the New Defense Forces, and upbraiding them for their cowardice when she was met with silence, astonishment, or refusal. It was a joke to her.
In the fourth week of our hunt, the last week of May, we finally saw evidence of the attackers. The debris of a starship was floating above a dead world, ringed with satellites. Seething with hatred for the killers, Dale went on a shooting spree. Targeting satellites four at a time, she spent two hours cleaning the sky above the roasted planet. When I tried to hail her, she just replied, "not now Gabrielle, I'm busy", and closed the channel. Then the shooting would continue. I was scared for her. Meanwhile, Ares, feeling less sympathy for the colonists who had betrayed the legacy of his warriors, dispassionately analyzed the destruction the attackers had wrought on the starship. He said the damage to the hull was from a class 6 weapon, musing that it was just like the old days. I thought I knew what he meant. When he said he should have, "hunted them down and killed them all", as Xena had wanted, I was sure. He was convinced the attackers were the same aliens that had invaded Earth so many millennia ago. To me it felt wrong, though I couldn't have explained why. I surveyed the frozen floating corpses of over 2,700 people who had been on that starship. It just made me sad. Like Dale and Ares, I wouldn't have hesitated to destroy any attackers I encountered.
After a month on the hunt, we skip-jumped back to Terminus Prime. We were tense and claustrophobic, and we had been alone, each of us in a separate ship, for a month. Ares was morose, blaming himself for letting the aliens flee in their mother ship that day so long ago on Earth. I made the point to him that we still hadn't seen any of the attackers, and couldn't be sure they were the same alien race he and Xena had fought in 2,006 A.D. It didn't cheer him up at all. He was brooding. Dale had become harder than ever. She withdrew into weapons training, up to ten hours a day. She spent the rest of her time studying tactics and strategy. Like Ares, she was inconsolable. Both of them were horrible company.
Being a history and archeology major, I decided to investigate the ruins of the citadel. On the third day of my in explorations, I made a fantastic discovery. In a hall above the old situation room, I found the library. There were crystals and discs, but there were also bound books. I had never seen one before. There were almost none in all the colonies. And in a special vault, I found, displayed in laminated sheets of mineral glass, scrolls so ancient they predated the earliest memories of civilization in the colonies. Predated them by thousands of years. Even one would have been a priceless treasure, worth a planet's ransom. There were hundreds. I didn't go back to the base until the hour we lifted to resume the hunt. With a translation visor and I crystalcorder I made a study of the oldest scrolls I found. They were the works of Gabrielle, the Bard of Poteidia. In her own words, I read of the adventures of the Warrior Princess, Xena of Amphipolis. Of her darkness, and her struggle to conquer it. Of her early adventures, as she sought to atone for her evil. The stories of her triumphs over her enemies in that distant time came alive in Gabrielle's scrolls. I also learned of the timeless love between them, and the promise of an eternal destiny entwined. Now I understood the danger my dear friend Dale faced. Pushed by her ancient prowess and her newfound anger for the attackers, she was in danger of sliding down again into darkness. She would become a terrifying, if not unstoppable enemy not the ancient Destroyer of Nations, but a Destroyer of Worlds. And like Gabrielle so long ago, I swore I would never let that happen, even if it cost me my life. When I saw Dale and Ares again, I saw them with different eyes.
THE DARKNESS IN THE LIGHT
On the calendar of old Earth it was June the first. We lifted from Terminus Prime to hunt the Kingdom. We jumped to a world near the destruction we had encountered before, and found it too had been roasted by satellites. Again we found the debris of blasted starships. We jumped again and again, and each time found ourselves looking down on another dead world. All through the first half of June we moved through the devastation of the Kingdom, like drifters riding through a ghost town. We saw not a single living thing. It was eerie, nerve wracking, and depressing. On the com screen I could see Ares' fury building, but in Dale's eyes there was a hollowness that told of a spirit dying inside. She was emotionless had been since we left Terminus Prime. I couldn't see my old friend in her anymore.
On June the fifteenth we terminated a jump, and we entered space near the world of MiCasa. Ahead of us, a colonial starship terminated a jump, and began falling towards the planet. We dropped shields and hailed them. They identified their ship as the Icarus III, filled with refugees seeking asylum on MiCasa. They couldn't believe it when we told them we were the Colonial Defense Forces. Their captain begged us for an escort, and we complied. They were good bait. We didn't tell them that at this distance our sensors showed they were headed for a roasted planet. We flanked the Icarus III, then initiated shields, and disappeared. As the Icarus III closed on the planet, and prepared to fall into orbit, our sensor alarms went off, and the computers alerted us to incoming ships.
"Alert, Incoming ships. Alert, Incoming ships. Six ships have terminated jumps at the coordinates of the prior arrival. Alien configuration. Active shielding at level 2. Weapons detected in classes 2, 3a, 6, and 7b. Analysis, squadron of six warships, armed, speed 35,000mph, course to intercept prior arrival, behavior status hostile."
The attackers had taken the bait. If we were lucky we would save the refugees, if we were very lucky we would capture an attacker. But if things went according to plan, we would send a M/AM torpedo after a single attacking ship, through a jump, to bring destruction to its home space, and with sensors, we would find where they lived.
Ares was on point, leading the Icarus III towards MiCasa, and he began to order us to flank the attackers, and destroy five, but Dale had already back flipped the Sword of Amphipolis, and was accelerating to attack speed, closing on the six alien ships. I back flipped the Aurora, and followed her. I could already see the Sword of Amphipolis glowing blue-white in its shield, and I knew wrath and vengeance were driving Dale into a fury. The Aurora was at half attack speed, closing on the targets, when the Sword of Amphipolis dropped shields, and fired. Four alien ships incandesced four kills. I was watching the Destroyer of Worlds being born. The Sword of Amphipolis was glowing again. I targeted the two remaining aliens, hoping she'd leave one to flee, and activated two M/AM torpedoes. Again the Sword of Amphipolis dropped shields, but she didn't fire. She was point blank with the alien, and she was daring him to fire on her. The alien had read the radiation signature of her weapon, and he wasn't going to duel with her. He powered down, as if to surrender. Then there was a flash, blinding white. The Sword of Amphipolis was alone. The alien had diverted all power to self-destruct. The last ship turned to flee, and as it reached jump velocity, I fired a M/AM. The alien jumped with the torpedo almost in contact. It was done.
Somewhere, across the dark of the void, an alien ship terminated its jump, hoping to report our existence. And somewhere, far away, the planet destroying power of the M/AM had followed it, found it, and destroyed it. Above the dead world of MiCasa, the sensors on our three warships recorded a seismic event. Computers crunched numbers, and produced sets of coordinates. The three computers compared coordinates, and triangulated a position. Somewhere was now a place on the space charts. The aliens were no longer hidden at least one of their outposts lay revealed. Now we would find them and we would kill them all.
We docked the warships with the starship, and went aboard. The Icarus III was filled with refugees, and they were scared, pissed-off, and lost, all at the same time. They had fled their home world in desperation, just ahead of the satellites, one of eight starships. The ships had left, hoping that by outnumbering the attack ships, and jumping almost in their atmosphere, at least some would escape. The Icarus III was the sole survivor. The refugees aboard, and those who had died on the other seven starships, were unusual people. Though they came from a world in the thrall of the Complacency, they had been willing to act. After watching our destruction of the attackers on their view screens, some of them were actually ready to kill. We couldn't believe it. It was wonderful. Ares in particular seemed happy that these humans could still be inspired to battle, rather than hopelessly awaiting death as all the people on the dead worlds had. They couldn't believe there were only three of us. It gave them even more faith in the idea of fighting back.
"With the right leadership, resources, and a few hundred years, there could be humans with the Spirit of Battle again," he confided to us, smiling for the first time in weeks, "if there is to be any hope, a balance of darkness and light must be created. At least there may be something here to start with."
"I bet you could do it in three generations," I told him, "if you took them to Terminus Prime, and settled them in a military atmosphere."
"Maybe," he said, "if they didn't get too comfortable there."
I could tell he was thinking about it though. In the end, we gave them the coordinates for a world we knew was still populated, telling them to seek refuge there, and that we would contact them later. For now, we had a mission.
There was one further matter to resolve before we followed the coordinates to the alien base. Aboard the Icarus III, in the captain's conference room, Ares and Dale were arguing over her conduct during the attack. She had gone off like a loose cannon, and acted like an army of one. Teamwork and discipline had gone out the window in the fury that had possessed her. The upcoming operation would require cooperation and military precision.
"What did you think you were doing, Dale? You lost it back there! You could have ruined our plan!" Ares started in on her with.
"I killed the bastards while you were still sitting back there with the refugees. What's your problem, Ares?" she threw back at him.
"I'll tell you what my problem is you! You forgot that you're part of an army, part of the Colonial Defense Forces. You acted like a green recruit out for glory. It was just plain dumb, and in war, the dumb end up dead!" Ares yelled at her.
"Oh so that's it, huh? You're pissed cause I'm not acting like your good little soldier girl! I could have taken them all out before they knew what was going on. I almost captured one of them, and we could have finally seen who we're up against!" Dale screamed back.
"Is that what you think?" Ares said quietly, an icy coldness in his eyes, "Dale, you went in one against six without waiting for cover. While you sat there without shields playing chicken, the other alien could have turned on you and blown you out of space. Do you know what a class 7b weapon is? It's a smart fusion torpedo. It's slow, and not very powerful compared to a M/AM, but it's powerful enough to have ended your little rampage. If that last alien hadn't been such a coward, he could have had you with the push of a button. The one who self-destructed could have done the same thing. He had nothing to lose. It's what I would have done. And don't tell me Val would have taken him out. She was targeting both aliens with her torpedoes cause she didn't know what you were going to do. She couldn't have used a M/AM that close to any of us. If your ship had been destroyed we couldn't have triangulated the position of the M/AM blast, even if the rest of the plan had worked. We had to have three ships and we only have three ships." Ares had worked himself into a lather, but he'd explained the situation in tactical terms Dale couldn't argue with. He'd never mentioned the breakdown in the chain of command. That was implied by her lack of strategic thinking. Dale didn't say anything, but she looked down, away from his eyes. She didn't apologize or capitulate, but her shoulders slumped. She knew she'd screwed up, and we'd gotten lucky. In silence we walked out and went back to our ships. Just before he entered the Ares, I heard him mutter, "just like the old days", the ghost of a smile on his lips.
THE LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
The position of the M/AM blast was in an area beyond the Kingdom. No colony had ever been established in that area, but long ago, explorers had surveyed it. There was a habitable system, and if the Expansion had continued, it would have been settled. The system had two worlds capable of supporting life, and four other planets, three of which were gas giants further out from their sun. Of the two livable planets, one was prime real estate, the other arid, but endowed with abundant mineral deposits. We jumped to a neighboring system, and Ares made a reconnaissance jump, terminating behind the closest gas giant. Then he vanished from the Ares, and reappeared in space above the outer world. He recorded on crystal for half an hour, then returned to his ship, and skip-jumped back to join us.
The alien world was highly developed, ships came and went, some crossing the void between the two planets, others jumping away. The culture appeared military, with clockwork arrivals and departures, sentinel stations in orbit, and regular patrols. Sensor stations monitored near space. We would have to jump right into the hornet's nest to surprise them. There was one anomalous event. A squadron of six ships which broke from a formation, and fled into the void. They were immediately pursued, and two were destroyed before the other four jumped. Ares believed they were deserters trying to escape, and said it was a sign of compromised moral. At no time did he observe a ship appear or disappear, and from this he inferred the aliens had nothing better than level 2 shields. On the whole, their capabilities were equal to those of the Defense Forces two generations, or nine hundred years, before the end of Expansion about 5,700 A.D. We were discussing assault plans, when our sensor alarms went off.
"Alert, Incoming ships. Alert, Incoming ships. Thirty ships have terminated jumps 10 million miles from your position, between your coordinates and the system sun. Alien configuration. Active shielding at level 2. Weapons detected in classes 2,3a, 6,and 7b. Course and speed at station keeping. Analysis, five squadrons of six warships, armed. Behavior status neutral."
Immediately we charged our x-ray lasers. We programmed our navigation controls to skip jump to a neutral coordinate in the void. The aliens' tactics weren't openly hostile, but their numbers were a threat. We were in defensive posture, and too close to their home world to battle freely. To avoid detection we had to maintain com silence. They shouldn't have been able to find our position, but somehow they hailed us on a tight com beam.
"Warships of the Colonial Defense Forces, this is the Thunder of Dawn squadron. We wish a parlay. Follow our jump to a neutral position in the void. We are too close to the New Kingdom. I repeat, we wish a parlay. We are in desertion of the order and command of the Leadership. We are soul tired of the destruction, and would arrange our surrender. Do you copy?"
Though we refused to give away our position by acknowledging their transmission, they had somehow known we were there, and they knew we would follow. They accelerated away from us, and made a jump. At no time had they made a hostile move. With five squadrons they could have terminated jumps to surround us, yet they had appeared at a discreet distance, crowded together. One voice had spoken for them all, and their maneuvers had the precision of military bearing. When they were gone, Ares contacted us and told us to follow at two-minute intervals, maintaining full shielding. Then he jumped to follow the renegade Thunder of Dawn squadron. Dale jumped next, and finally, I followed.
I found myself above Terminus Prime. The Thunder of Dawn squadron was positioned at the moon's trailing Lagrange point. They were powered down, and the tides of gravity were keeping them on station. The Ares and the Sword of Amphipolis were bracketing them 120 arc degrees apart, glowing blue-white, shields up, but ready to fire. I took station in the third position of a circle around the alien squadron. Upon my arrival, they began to hail us.
"Warships of the Colonial Defense Forces, this is the Thunder of Dawn squadron. We are in desertion from the New Kingdom. We seek to surrender, and we seek asylum. We have ninety warriors, aboard. We carry valuable intelligence reports. New capabilities have been achieved by the New Kingdom. The Leadership is in defiance of our Constitution. They have lost their balance and have brought disgrace on the warriors. They must be stopped. This planet is hallowed in the memory of the New Kingdom. We request clearance for landfall on Terminus Prime, and conditions for our disarmament. We will make a gesture of good faith."
Without changing power status, the thirty warships of the Thunder of Dawn squadron jettisoned their fusion torpedoes, and twelve floated away from each ship. Our sensors revealed the torpedoes to be inactive. They still had particle beam weapons, but those couldn't penetrate our shields. They had put themselves in a nearly helpless position. After two minutes, Ares hailed them.
"Thunder of Dawn squadron, this is the Ares "
Whatever he said next was lost in the sounds of cheering from the squadron. It went on for several minutes. It sounded more like a celebration than a surrender. Finally it quieted enough for Ares to continue.
"Warriors, proceed to the coordinates I transmit. We will escort you to landfall. The spirit of your gesture, and your petition for surrender are accepted. Asylum is granted from hostile forces, but does not repeal the application of military justice. Ares out."
With the Sword of Amphipolis and the Aurora flanking them, and the Ares following, the Thunder of Dawn squadron fell into the atmosphere of Terminus Prime, decelerated, and came to landfall on a plateau beyond the base, where no military structures were visible. We remained in our ships, powered up, and covering them from three sides while they debarked. As the warriors and their families set foot on the soil of Terminus Prime, they fell to their knees, and kissed the bare rocky ground, like mariners, long at sea and safely returned home. We watched in wonder, and I excitedly anticipated the story they would tell. They threw their side arms in a pile, and then withdrew a distance from them. They seemed sincere in their intention to surrender. When our onboard sensors reported no life forms remaining on the alien ships, we debarked, and went to meet them.
When they saw Ares a hush went through them, and one by one, the warriors among them came to attention. When they saw Dale and I, they stared in wonder, and a murmur went through them. Finally, the ranking squadron leader came forward, and identified himself as Flight Lieutenant Auriel Markoff. He saluted us with a sword, and laid it on the ground at Ares feet. Ares returned the salute with his sword, which brought another gasp from them. It was a different and more complex salute than the Star Captain's salute he'd greeted us with that first day. In fact, some movements were impossible to follow. Dale and I remained at attention behind him. This was a ceremonial surrender of warriors, from a ranking officer, to a ranking enemy commander, as it had once been done in the Kingdom. Ares seemed pleased with the protocols. He and Lieutenant Markoff discussed terms for a few minutes and then the officer returned to his troops. Their surrender was accepted, and further discussions had been arranged.
First of all, they weren't really aliens. They were human. Their people were originally renegades from the Kingdom, who had been driven out of the colonial worlds before the start of the Great Complacency. Their ancestors had agitated against the loss of the Spirit of Battle in the colonies, and from the time when the Expansion ended they had been ostracized. They had survived beyond the frontier, and formed a confederation they called the New Kingdom. They had had no real warships, but they did have some weapons taken from the colonies. They had armed their fastest ships. It was with these, and raw courage that they had defeated the aliens that had long ago invaded Earth. From their enemies, they had taken technology, and eventually built a fleet. Then they had fallen on the aliens, and destroyed them utterly. The home world we had seen was one of five colonial worlds. They were ruled by a Constitutional Junta, an elected military government called the Leadership. In the last two hundred years, corruption had seeped into the Leadership, turning it into a dictatorship. Then the ancient resentment of the Kingdom had exploded into the destruction of starships, and the roasting of worlds. For the last one hundred-sixty years the Leadership had savaged the Kingdom with genocide. Increasingly, these warriors were sickened by the slaughter, feeling in their hearts that unarmed civilians were undeserving and unworthy opponents.
"The sheep of the Kingdom were ripe for the slaughter, yet genocide brings no honor to warriors, and the killing of billions has sickened our hearts," their leader said to Ares, "surely the God of War believes the actions of the Leadership show their fall from the balance of dark and light."
"So it seems. The peoples of the Kingdom have fallen as well," Ares said, "and both show the evil effects of the dark and the light out of balance."
"Those of us who have deserted are willing to fight against the Leadership, for the honor of past heroes, and the hope of a balanced future."
"How many warriors would desert if given the hope of regaining their ancient honor?" Ares asked.
"Very, very few," their officer said, "you can see how many of us have had the courage and the luck to make this journey. We are raised in a command structure, and almost none can disobey orders or put honor above them"
"They know of us?" Ares asked.
"We have always known about Terminus Prime, and the God of War. It is taught to every child. We have looked to the Defense Forces as the ultimate example of warrior honor. It has been that way since the beginning of the New Kingdom," he said to Ares, "we still preserve as much of the traditions as we can. It comes from ancestors who were, at some time in their lives, members of the Defense Forces. We still know the story of the God of War, and his favorites."
Ares continued his fascinating interrogation, and the leader of the Thunder of Dawn squadron was glad to tell what he knew. His respect bordered on awe, and his commitment was beyond question.
"Tell me of the new capabilities you mentioned," Ares asked him.
"This is the reason we finally knew we had to desert," he answered, "for the last decade our researchers have been developing intrusive sensors, and with one of these we were able to discern your presence near the home world. So far only a few have been deployed."
After a pause, he continued, "When several of our squadrons failed to return, we began to whisper that the Leadership had offended the God of War, and Jihad would be unleashed against us. We knew we had to leave. We knew we would refuse to fight your forces. But there was a development in the last six months that made leaving now imperative. The torpedoes we jettisoned were class 7b weapons. Now the New Kingdom is manufacturing class 9 weapons, and in a few months they will be deployed. Yesterday there was a blast in our system, and it was of an unimaginable magnitude. There were earthquakes on our home world 150 million miles away. It was the opening salvo of the Jihad, and that night all the remaining deserters fled, or died trying."
"Class 9 weapons," Ares mused, and I could tell he was thinking back to the time such weapons had a place in his own arsenal, "with the evil in the New Kingdom, such power would be used without restraint. The 647 remaining worlds of the Kingdom could be obliterated in as many days."
I was sickened at the thought. A class 9 weapon is a simple guided missile, with a massive enhanced fusion warhead. It is the most primitive of the world destroyers. It cannot follow a target's evasive maneuvers, and it cannot jump. Against a stationary target it is deadly. With intrusive sensors, the alien ships would be able to find our warships they wouldn't be able to hide from us, but now we wouldn't be able to hide from them either. We could be ambushed. But worse than that, Terminus Prime was known to them, and if they came here they would be able to sense us, and they could now destroy us. The thought of the priceless library came to me, and its destruction would be a high crime against mankind. I glanced at Dale, and I could tell she was seething. She would relish the opportunity to fire a M/AM torpedo at their home world, and she would revel in the destruction of her enemies. Destroyer of Worlds Jihad Holy War. They hadn't seen anything yet. As if reading my thoughts, the officer looked at us.
"We revere the God of War, and the descendants of Gabrielle are known as well. But she," he said looking at Dale, "is the Dark Angel, and her memory is feared and hated throughout the New Kingdom. We remember one like her in a red warship, who enforced our exile from the Kingdom long ago."
All through the night
I'll be awake and I'll be with you
All through the night
This precious time when time is new
Oh, all through the night today
Knowing that we feel the same without saying *
* "All Through The Night", © Jules Shear
Later I went to the Sword of Amphipolis, and sought out Dale. We had barely spent any time alone together since uploading the crystals. I looked into her eyes and I saw tension thinly covering a bloodthirsty rage. It scared me, and it made me sad.
"Dale, what's happened to you?" I asked her as we sat together in the galley.
"Well, guess I'm the Dark Angel now Gab uh, I mean Val." she said, turning to face me, "I've been on edge since the upload, and they're crowding me."
"You mean Xena and all the others?"
"Yeah, I feel their anger at the colonists, at the New Kingdom killers, at Ares and even even at myself," Dale said, "it's always there. I can't fight it cause it's me. I hate feeling this way all the time, but there's so much conflict, so much resentment."
"I can understand hating the colonists, and the New Kingdom," I said as I took her hands and held them, "but Ares has been pretty straight with us, and you made up for the evil of your warlord days long ago."
"Ares turned me into a monster," Dale said softly, and I could feel her hands tremble, "and I keep remembering things I did, bloody, horrible things. And like what that officer said tonight, I hear the other side of my story feared and hated on five worlds I feel like I'm going to explode, but I'm afraid if I do I'll go crazy that's what she always did, like with the satellites, or those attackers...I didn't do those things, I barely remember them."
Dale was quietly sobbing, tears of frustration and anger running down her cheeks. She tried to turn away from me, but I wouldn't let her. I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to me, and held her.
"Val, I don't know who I am anymore or I guess I'm all of them, and I can't fight them, cause they're stronger than me and when I try, they drive me out, and then I find I did something violent sometimes I don't remember anything for days," Dale whispered through her tears.
Gabrielle and her reincarnations were basically good at heart. They were strong in their convictions, believing in hope and trust, and represented the light. Except perhaps for one lifetime, they were happy with who they were. Xena had been the soul in conflict. As dedicated to the greater good as she had been to her ruthless search for power, she was always driven, always deadly. I remembered what Gabrielle had said in her scrolls. Xena had been constantly fighting her darkness. It was second nature to her, and the more deadly she became, the more it required vigilante effort to resist. Gabrielle had grounded her efforts, and represented a balance to that dark with her own light. Through her devoted love she had kept Xena from giving in to her impulses, kept her on a balanced path. Now, over 8,800 years, and sixty-two lifetimes later, the weight of darkness was too heavy for one seventeen-year-old girl to fend off on her own. It was overwhelming her. It wasn't hard to see my friend disappearing into the miasma of violence that had built up across the millennia. And I didn't want to lose her. Dale had been my best friend since fourth grade; the one who went along with my schemes, the one who understood me, and the one who made me laugh. She was the one I could talk to, the only one I could really talk to; the only one I loved? I searched myself. In this lifetime it was true. Holding Dale brought me as much comfort as it brought her. Because I was as much Gabrielle as I was Valerie Havarr. I was the one who believed in her, and she needed me. She had always believed in me, and I needed her too.
"Dale, I'll always be beside you, and when the darkness threatens to overwhelm you think of me, and I will be your light," I whispered to her, "you're more than my friend. I have loved you all my lives."
She had her arms around me now, and when she heard that she squeezed me desperately tight. I could feel her tortured breathing as she sobbed in my arms, so strong and helpless. I coaxed her out of her chair, and walked her to her bunk, never breaking our embrace. My arms were still around her as she cried herself to sleep. Just before I went down from waking, she whispered, "Valerie don't ever leave me, please. I love you."
The next morning we awoke in each other's arms, tangled in her bunk. She was a tear- stained wreck, but she smiled. She was still Xena and all the others, but she was Dale again. From then on she always managed to hug me or touch my shoulder or hand, little reassurances of the bond between our souls. I did the same, and I got used to her catching me looking at her with a goofy smile on my face I'd catch her the same way. It always made me feel so loved. It was like that for four hundred and sixty-five years.
THE MIDNIGHT STAR
Ares asked the New Kingdom deserters to open their hearts to him, and he read their resolve. Immediately he began training them to fly and fight in the warships. The irony of the New Defense Force volunteers coming from the ranks of the attackers, rather than the Kingdom, was noticed by all. On the solstice of old Earth, thirty-three warships lifted from Terminus Prime. It was a prophetic number he said, but we didn't understand the reference. We formed into three squadrons of ten ships, with a command ship to lead each of them. We formed up and jumped to the system neighboring the New Kingdom. Ares led the first attack wave. His squadron jumped to low orbit over the home world, and began attacking the sensor stations, the particle beam weapons of the alien fighters, harmless against their shields. The deserters made good use of the speed and maneuverability of the warships. When a defender fired a fusion torpedo, they would draw it, allowing it to come close. As it followed they would dive at a target. At the last moment before impact, they would evade by changing course. Speed and inertia would drive the torpedo into the target they had selected. In this way, several of the sensor stations were destroyed by New Kingdom torpedoes. It took Ares' squadron just eleven minutes to clear the home world's sensors from the skies.
Dale's squadron jumped next, terminating in the space that the defenders could no longer monitor. Her ships engaged the New Kingdom squadrons beyond the planet's exosphere, occupying them so they couldn't reinforce the planet. There would be no help for the defenders engaging Ares' ships. Slowly, the superiority of our warships took its toll on the defending forces. It was a bitter war of attrition. The surviving deserters made a legend of the fury of Dale's attacks, the Sword of Amphipolis glowing blue-white in the void, striking down defenders four at a time. She killed over eighty ships that day, over two hundred and forty defenders. As I watched her ship spiraling and flipping through the battle, I knew Dale had invited the fury of the past generations to aid her.
As my squadron terminated the jump into battle, we saw two squadrons of New Kingdom ships accelerating away from the home world, preparing to jump. With a sense of premonition, I armed two M/AM torpedoes, and launched them after the fleeing ships. In a heartbeat they jumped, and the torpedoes jumped in pursuit. They were doomed. We suppressed reinforcements from the second planet, and as the hangers there emptied, we shot them down. Then, one of my wingmen reported the results of a scan of the planet. Silos deep in the ground held caches of class 9 weapons, and they were being prepared for launch. My sensors read the thermal signatures of thirty-four weapons lifting from the silos below. I opened the com links to Ares and Dale, reporting the launches. In minutes it would be too late, for they would reach escape velocity, and spread out towards targets across the void. Only now, while they labored against the planetary gravity would they be vulnerable at the same time. I had to take the initiative. I assumed command of the operation by emergency override code. I knew I was too close, but there was nothing I could do. I activated a M/AM torpedo, targeted the planet, and fired.
What does it feel like to know you are going to die? How does it feel to know you had destroyed a planet full of people? Time slowed down, or my thoughts sped up. I watched the trail of the M/AM as it entered the planet's atmosphere, falling faster then a comet towards the surface. In a heartbeat, everything would be blinding white, and I wondered if I would feel any pain. The Jihad was upon them and I I was the Destroyer of Worlds. I closed my eyes, and waited. I felt warm arms around me yes, the power of our love, come to comfort me at the end I thought. Then I felt myself lifted, and I vanished.
What I had believed, and what was, were two different things. Ares had come for me. His ship was on the far side of the first planet, in its blast shadow when the M/AM destroyed the second planet. He had vanished from the Ares and reappeared in the Aurora, wrapped his arms around me, and taken me back. He had saved my life. We had barely materialized when he commanded the navigation control to jump. Then we were terminating somewhere across the void. Twenty-seven warships awaited us we had lost five. There had been thirteen M/AM torpedoes remaining on the Aurora after my launch, and the ship was so close to the second planet they all detonated. There had been over thirty class 9 missiles in the planet's atmosphere. All of them exploded too. The blast was far greater than what was required to destroy a planet. It probably would have destroyed a sun. For a few moments, the Aurora had lit the void with a new dawn. It had become the midnight star. I was numb from the experience, and I finished the mission in the Ares. We had three more New Kingdom worlds to neutralize.
With coordinates supplied by the deserters, we jumped to another system. One of the fleeing squadrons had terminated their jumps in low orbit here. The following M/AM I had launched had ravaged the planet. We did not engage the survivors they fled before us into the void. We found the same had happened in the third system we invaded, but any survivors had already fled. The fourth world would have had news of the destruction of the other planets. They would be waiting for our attack, and they would be desperate. They would fight as if they had nothing to lose. That's what we thought. What we found was very different.
We terminated our jump to the fourth planet in three squadrons, appearing simultaneously. There was no point in trying to surprise them. A full frontal attack was our best tactic. Twenty-eight warships appeared in the planet's atmosphere. Shields at full, glowing blue-white. There were no defending ships in the skies. Our sensors showed over six hundred attack ships on launch fields around the planet, unmanned, and powered down. Warriors stood at the margins of the fields in ranks as if on revue. We read the radiation signatures of weapons in silos, but the silos were closed, and the weapons had not been activated. It was a world holding its breath.
A channel opened, and the planet hailed us.
"Warships of the Colonial Defense Forces, the warriors of the New Kingdom decline combat. We will not engage in battle against the forces of the God of War. The Spirit of Battle lives in the New Kingdom. The Leadership is deposed. We ask for terms of capitulation. Our people seek to regain the balance of dark and light."
We couldn't believe it. Somehow they had thrown off the dictatorship. Somehow their history and traditions had outweighed their orders. They had offered to surrender, revering the Spirit of Battle and the God of War more highly than their own corrupt leadership. We made landfall on the launch field.
The formal ceremony of surrender took place as soon as we debarked. Three Air Marshals saluted Ares, and laid down their swords. His return salute brought cheers from the ranks of warriors. Later, their ranking officers almost wept in awe as they toured the Ares, the legendary red ship of the Defense Forces the most advanced warship then in existence. They stood salute by the iris port, paying tribute to the roster of ship's captains engraved in the hull, and later told me their legends about them. Dale and I searched our memories for the proper responses and bearing for the ceremonies, and I think we acquitted ourselves well. Dale seemed surprised by an ancient memory she recalled, but wouldn't say anything about it.
The deserters were the subjects of some jealous looks, having been the earliest to defy the corruption, and the first to join us. They had also flown Defense Forces warships in battle, and for this too they were the subjects of envy. Within a day they came to be regarded as heroes, founders of the New Defense Forces.
That night, we stayed in the New Kingdom city where we had landed. The full discussion of terms would take a few days, and we were staying to see it through. Dale and I had rooms close together, with Ares and the deserters nearby. In the late hours of the night I went to talk with her, but her room was empty. I found Ares in a courtyard, still in discussions with the New Kingdom leaders. I didn't interrupt. I went back, and as I entered the hall leading to our rooms, a series of blue flashes came from under Ares' door. I hurried to my room, and watched the hall from my doorway. Dale left Ares' room, and quickly returned to her own. I was curious, but as I debated confronting her about it, I began to feel sleepy. It had been the longest day of my life, and I was always one to sleep when I could. So I never asked her about it until much later.
THE SURRENDER THAT WASN'T
"Does anything about all this seem wrong to you?" Dale asked me the next morning.
"Well, it was too easy," I replied, "as much as we know about the New Kingdom from the deserters, I can't believe they'd just give up and fall on their knees to Ares."
"That's part of it. They know Ares, and they know us," she said, "and they're playing him for a fool. This is war strategy, and we've only been thinking of battle tactics."
"You mean the surrender is a sham?"
"Not in the way you're thinking," Dale said, "they'll surrender alright, and they won't attack for awhile. They'll play on his ego for a couple hundred years, then they'll be back to destroying worlds but they'll be doing it with his blessing. He's never liked the Kingdom. They betrayed his warrior heroes remember the first day, when he blasted the citadel wall?"
"Oh my gods, yeah," I remembered my terror at his outburst, "these warriors are everything he's wanted."
"Yeah, and if you have an army, you have to have enemies. I know I had an army. So who's the enemy now?"
"There's only the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom," I answered, "Dale, what are we going to do?"
"Well, you're the history major," she said with a half-smile, "what do you think?"
"We've got to stop him."
"Wrong answer," she said, "he'll never agree to that. We have to do something, and I've got a plan."
"Ok, count me in these bastards destroyed 1,167 worlds "
"And an alien civilization."
"And an alien civilization, and we know they're brave. So when Ares equips them with the Defense Forces warships, and the M/AMs "
"That's right, there'll be no stopping them. The whole galaxy will be Ares' Kingdom."
"So what are we going to do?"
"You're going to play normal, and keep him off my back. Keep your eyes and ears open, and learn what you can. The New Kingdom warriors revere him, and they said they know you, but they fear and hate me. I think I'll give them a good reason to fear and hate me. I'll let you know when we start on phase two."
Dale was acting like the Xena that Gabrielle remembered, insightful, resourceful, and always prepared with a plan. She seemed a little different, but I couldn't put my finger on why. I knew I'd go along with her I almost always had. I just wondered what she was up to. I didn't see her for the rest of that day, or the next. Ares barely missed her, and when he asked, I said I thought she'd gone to revue the rest of the planet's forces, to take a weapons inventory for his surrender documentation. He liked the idea, said, "whatever", and went on with his meetings. I could see he liked the way the New Kingdom officers were treating him. Late that night, the ranking officer of the deserters came to me for a secret conference. He said things that left me no doubt Dale was right in suspecting the real intentions of the New Kingdom leaders. It started with a soft knock on my door .
"Valerie, it's Flight Lieutenant Markoff," he whispered through the door, "I have to speak with you, please, this is very important."
I let him in, and the first thing he did was sweep the room with a com detector, then, when he was sure no listening devices had been planted in my room, he spoke.
"I have a warning. I have learned that there is a plot against Ares, and yourselves. You believed in us and gave us a chance to regain our honor, and I am indebted to you. This surrender is tainted. The leaders who are negotiating with the God of War were once lesser members of the dictatorship. We have found they assassinated the dictators, and assumed power. They still follow the way of darkness out of balance. They will return to the genocide. They seek to subvert Ares to their cause."
"Lieutenant Markoff," I asked, "how do you know this?"
"In the same way we found out about the intrusive sensors and the class 9 missiles, our spy network has informants at the highest levels of the Leadership. We are authorized by the Constitution to safeguard the New Kingdom. We are a brotherhood and see ourselves as patriots working for the greater good. I guess you could say it's almost like a religion with us we seek the balance. I will keep you informed of what I hear. Blessed be Valerie."
"Thank you Lieutenant," I said, seeing there was more going on in the New Kingdom than we had suspected, "I hope to hear from you soon."
I sat up pondering the report from the Lieutenant, seeing how it fit in with what Dale and I already suspected. I decided it was fairly reliable, especially the part about the new leaders having assassinated the old, deposing them for their failings, for bringing down the Jihad. It made sense it's what I would have done. Sacrifice the chaff, and save the heart of the plan. Not the acquisition of territory, but the destruction of the Kingdom, in revenge for the long ago exile. I saw that a delay of a couple hundred years made little difference, especially if you lived for five hundred. Today's leaders expected to live to see the final destruction of their defenseless enemy. Finally, I got in bed, turned out the lights, and fell into a troubled sleep.
In the early morning hours, alarms jerked me from the cocoon of sleep. I was hearing explosions on the launch fields, and out my windows I could see the New Kingdom attack ships burning by the hundreds. Soldiers were racing through the night, and sensor beams were hunting the skies. There were no visible attackers. In fact, by dawn, the source of the attack was still unknown. As the first rays of light lifted the darkness, I could see the extent of the destruction. There was not a single New Kingdom ship intact on the launch field. I was suspicious this reeked of sabotage, sabotage by a God. I had to find Ares.
He was still with the New Kingdom commanders, and hadn't been out of their sight since our landing. They couldn't suspect him. He was furious. He was also as baffled as the commanders. When I appeared He demanded to know where Dale was, and I was trying to think up an excuse, when she walked into the room in a swirling officer's cloak. She was with two officers of the deserters, and they reported that they had accompanied her to the other bases on the planet. They presented documents. She hadn't even been on the same continent when the attack had occurred. The search for aliens, saboteurs, and invaders commenced. She motioned me to follow her, and we went back to her room. The deserter officers trailing after us. She closed the door, and they scanned the room. Finding nothing, we were free to talk.
"Did you like my fireworks?" she asked me.
"How did you where have you been?" was all I could say, as the officers laughed.
"Val, I found it," she said, and in her hand was the chakram.
I just stared at it, and then I stared at her, and then back at it again.
"You went back to Terminus Prime?"
"I was searching the citadel for a day and a half. I found a sanctuary and in it was the chakram. Remember, it can only be used by someone who holds the balance of dark and light? Well, I looked right past it twice, and then all of a sudden it was there. All I can figure is that only when Ares lost the balance could it pass to me."
"But Dale, how did you destroy all those ships?"
She opened her hand, and as I watched, God's Fire flared in her palm, then she let it fade, and finally she closed her hand. Then she dropped the cloak she wore, and she was dressed in brown leather, an ancient breastplate of bronze fastened over her chest, and a battered sword strapped to her back. She hooked the chakram to a clip at her right hip.
"Behold Dale the Goddess of War!" said one of the officers.
"Goddess ?" I was dumbfounded.
"It's in the genes," was all she said.
We rounded up the other deserters, and somehow they were ready to leave. They had gone to their warships when the destruction started, supposedly to guard them. Those twenty-eight ships were the only intact ships on the planet. Dale took the Ares, and somehow it seemed right. I flew the Sword of Amphipolis. As a squadron we lifted from the planet, accelerated to jump velocity, and in a flash we were gone. Dale had given me coordinates, and I knew they weren't for Terminus Prime. We terminated the jump in the void, but before us was a world, and above it a starship lying ready. It was the Icarus III. We docked the warships with the starship, and went aboard. There were three hundred and thirty-three colonists; those willing to again travel the void. Colonists who would no longer stay in the Kingdom, even now that its safety was assured for, desiring to achieve a balance which was their legacy as men, they preferred to find new worlds to conquer.
"Dale, what about Terminus Prime, what about the warships, and the magazine, and the weapons? Ares will bring his warriors there, and rearm them more deadly than before." I asked her as we settled the colonists in the starship.
"Val, hon, Terminus Prime is gone utterly and completely destroyed. As we left, I targeted the planet and fired a M/AM before we jumped. We registered the seismic shock all the way across the galaxy in the New Kingdom. It's gone," she said.
Terminus Prime gone. The one place in the galaxy where the history of the Earth and the Kingdom was preserved. The loss was monumental. I thought of the library, Gabrielle's scrolls, the books, and all the other knowledge, lost forever. I felt bereft, deprived of a lifetime of opportunity to study and learn. I felt sorrow for the future generations of people who would never know the history of their race. My heart sank, and a single tear slid down my cheek. Dale knew what I was thinking.
"Oh no Val, no. I wouldn't never. I remember the loss of Alexandria. Come with me, come on," she said taking my hand and leading me like a blind woman through the ship. We came to a cargo hold, locked and sealed. Dale palmed the lock pad, and the door hissed up. There was an air lock, and the inner door opened only after the outer door closed. There were crates, cases, and in racks, sealed against the elements and time, were the laminated scrolls. Near the door, on a pedestal protected by a gravity field and a hermetic casing were two small urns. Through tears of joy I read the inscriptions on the urns. On the right, "Xena of Amphipolis 127 B.C. - 2,006 A.D.", and on the left, "Annika Sherril Anno Domini 6,494 - 6,895".
I had never been so happy, not since I'd brought two swords and a crystal to my dearest friend, on a world far behind. Now she was a Goddess, and I was going to become the greatest story keeper and historian the worlds had ever seen. Soon the Icarus III would lift out of orbit, and jump across the void to a new world.
"Dale, where are we going? What world are we going to settle?" I asked her.
She was overseeing the Ares as it was being berthed in a hanger deck, and her hand stroked the list of names on the hull. As her hand passed the end of the list, I saw two new names appear, Dale Sherril / Valerie Havarr - Year of Our Lord 8,722.
"Year of Our Lord?"
"Anno Domini, Val, A.D. never meant After Dissolution," she replied, as I searched my memories, and found it to be true, "I put the date to it, because with luck, we'll never fly a warship again."
"But Dale, WHERE ARE WE GOING?"
"It's a surprise," she replied.
WORLD WITHOUT END
The Icarus III lifted smoothly from orbit, accelerated into the void, and made a jump. It jumped again, and again, and again, and again. Without the advanced navigation of a warship, we had to make the skip-jump manually. The colonist pilot gave up on the charts, and Dale just laughed, it was a joke to her. We spent a full week and made over three thousand jumps. No one, not even with a planetary computer, would be following our course. Somewhere in the endless night of the void, I fell into a peaceful sleep tucked into a couch in the control room. I woke briefly to see Dale standing over me, looking down and smiling I'd caught her again.
She finally shook me awake, and said she didn't want me to miss the final jump. I looked out the ports, but the stars were strange I didn't recognize it from any chart I had ever seen.
"Mmmm, where are we," I asked as I yawned.
"We're almost home," she said, and the pilot had a big smile, like he shared her secret, "just one more jump, and it's worth seeing."
The stars winked out, and we made the jump. When we terminated, there was a green world below us. Oceans, and continents beautiful as they were revealed by the advance of dawn across the terminator. To our starboard hung a giant moon, and far away, a yellow sun. I looked down again, and magnified the image a thousand times. Vegetation covered the land below us, and I could see herds of animals, and birds flying. I looked in wonder at the landscape below us. Finally I turned to Dale.
"It's a Cardinal world isn't it how did you find such a planet? In all the galaxy there are only a few, and and look at all the life!"
She took my hand, and kissed it, and then she told me.
"It's in the scrolls in one of Gabrielle's scrolls. Once, so long ago we have forgotten even the idea of it, she played a game by night, naming arrangements of stars for the pictures in her mind's eye. That list she made, when sifted through a modern computer, yielded a star chart and from that chart, a set of coordinates. We are at the world on which it all started. It IS a Cardinal world, and if the old stories are true, there is a Great Power here as well. And, I know that is true."
"How Dale, how can you know that?" I asked with growing excitement.
"Well, first of all I'm a Goddess, and I can sense these things, but there's another reason. Remember what the deserters told you when the Lieutenant came to you in secret?"
"Well, they told me they seek the balance, and they were like a religion, and "
And then it hit me. They sought the balance. Sought to find the balance not for themselves, but sought THE ONE WHO HELD THE BALANCE, the balance as it was symbolized by the chakram, the dark and light joined, which only one having that balance could hold. They had found the one with the balance Dale. When she had taken the chakram she was revealed as the one they sought.
I ran back to the passenger deck, and as I approached the deserters, a golden light came down in beams around them, and their figures faded, drawn up into it. They were smiling at me, and Dale came up to join me.
"We know the descendants of Gabrielle, for she was once one of us. And truly, you Dale are the Dark Angel. Your memory is feared and hated throughout the New Kingdom Blessed be," the one who had been Lieutenant Markoff declared, as he vanished.
We made landfall in the highlands of a peninsula surrounded by a small sea filled with a thousand islands. A million stars shone overhead. The library and the warship were hidden on a mountaintop. There we had our base camp. In the following decades, the colonists thrived, and their homes spread across the land. There was room to spare. In those days, Dale was revered as a Goddess, and in succeeding generations places of worship sprang up. The colonist's relationship to me was a little more complex. They knew I was mortal, but I also held so much lore and knowledge, that in later generations I was remembered as a Goddess as well. Some of this had to do with the benefits of being Dale's favorite. Yet when a question arose, they sought me out for the answers I could give, on almost any subject.
Some questions I needed to answer for myself, and I sifted my memory. Although Dale had no blood relationship to Xena, nor I to Gabrielle, the history crystals Ares had coded as a double helix had changed us more than we had suspected. They contained DNA, and upon upload, we became Xena and Gabrielle on a molecular level. Along with the memories we got the heritage. In that way, Dale was able to sneak into Ares' room that first night on the New Kingdom planet, and by lifting his sword, activate her latent godhood. She'd done it before long, long ago, and she'd known it would work again.
Ares had thought the cycle had come to an end in 6,962 A.D., and so he fell into the Sleep of the Gods. He had ignored his own prediction. In 2,084 A.D. he had written that "one day someone will manage to steal the chakram, and flee to the stars". Long ago a band of renegades had taken the rings of darkness and light, and fled to Earth. They were the instruments by which the Great Power returned these symbols to their home world. The renegades, Zeus and his kin, lost the balance over time, and the chakrams could not be joined. Later, with darkness in her soul, Xena had taken possession of the dark chakram. After her resurrection she was, for a time, only light. In that time she could claim the chakram of light, and joining the two, achieved the balance. When she died as a mortal, she passed it on to Ares who, as a servant of the Great Power, had the balance to hold it. When he was seduced by the New Kingdom's darkness, it was again freed. Now Dale had achieved the balance of dark and light and, holding the joined Chakram, returned it to Earth. As Goddess of War, she kept alive the Spirit of Battle, and from her it flowed to the colonists. They had the will to master the new world to which she had brought them, and they thrived, conquering all its challenges.
9,187 A.D. After 482 years I lay dying. Dale was still as she had been when she became a Goddess. The time had come for us to act on the promise of eternal rebirths and shared destiny. As always, she had a plan, and we both had faith. In the last years, she had built a temple, housing a circular altar. A symbol on that altar showed dark and light as joined and equal opposites. She held me as my spirit passed from my body, and then as it hovered above, put off her weapons, and her armor. She leaned over the altar with the Holy Chakram, and she poured all her power into it. I watched as her body burned away, and for a moment had the impression of her skeleton. Then her body fell into dust, and two rings, the separated dark and light, dropped onto the altar and came to rest on the symbols of their elements. Her spirit joined mine, and together we rose from the temple, into the light. Now at last the Great Cycle was complete.
9,314 A.D. The young warrior looked from the cover of the trees to the temple overlooking the cliffs. She'd seen it in dreams, and it looked exactly right. She'd come to this mountaintop where legends said the Gods had once lived. With her was a younger girl dressed as a peasant. They were an odd pair. The warrior herself was young, twenty-two summers, but she had seen battle already for five years. She'd met the girl just this past spring, when she'd slain the slavers who had dragged her from her village. Then she couldn't get rid of her. They'd become friends through the shared hardship of the road.
The warrior drew her sword, and she and the girl left the cover of the woods, and with stealth, made their way to the temple gate. She peered around the corner, and seeing the courtyard empty motioned her companion inside. Again she surveyed the temple, and hearing nothing, moved to the doors. They stood open, and the light inside was dim. They waited for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. Dust covered the floor, and it was littered with the remains of bodies, mummified in the dry mountain air. The girl shivered, but the warrior held her focus. The altar was in the room's center, and upon it she could see the glint of metal.
"Two rings to hold the dark and light, and through eternity remain " she muttered, fixing her resolve, "nothing ventured nothing gained."
She had hardened herself in battle, but she looked at her companion, and tenderness filled her eyes. "If this doesn't work, I want you to take my sword, and sell it, then pay for your passage home. My ghost would find no rest if I knew I'd brought you to harm."
"I know you'll succeed," the girl told her, " you've dreamed about this, and so have I, and my dreams always come true, you know that."
"You're right it's all a matter of faith."
The warrior sheathed her sword, and stepped to the altar. She moved with the grace and poise of one gifted with unconscious awareness of her body, the same coordination which served her so well in a fight. Lifting a hand over each ring, she took a deeper breath, and as she exhaled, she let her hands fall on the rings. They felt cool, as metal should. None of the burning at the touch that had killed all the others who had tried. She lifted the rings, still nothing. She held them together, and then the lightning started, radiating from the rings through her body, and filling the room. Then there was a flash. She opened her eyes. In her hands was a ring, and in its center was the s-curve, like the curve in the design on the altar. She backed away, returned to her friend, and together they hurried away.
Though all things in the world change in time, the Will of a Great Power moves the world in cycles large and small. But with love and faith, there shall always be a cause for hope. So mote it be.
UNTIL IT ENDS THERE IS NO END*
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